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Three Days And A Life by Pierre Lemaitre: a lifetime of guilt

Woods at Ardennes, setting of Three Days and A Life by Pierre Lemaitre
Cover of Three Days and A Life, by Pierrre Lemaitre, a tense tell of the psychology of a young killer

Three Days And A Life was a book that almost left the house unread. I’d read a previous novel by Pierre Lemaitre – Alexbut it was too graphic and disturbing for my tastes. I didn’t want to risk more of the same so I used used one of my Sample Sunday posts to ask for opinions on whether to keep Three Days And A Life.

The reaction from Emma of WordsandPeace was the deciding factor. She not only reassured me that I wouldn’t encounter a gory novel but added that she thought it was a “fabulous” psychological tale. So Three Days And A Life earned a reprieve.

It turned out to be the right decision. This is a slickly constructed book, rich in atmosphere and psychological insight with an ending that comes as a complete surprise.

It’s not an easy novel to categorise.

It’s not a thriller as such, though it does have oodles of tension. Neither does it tick the boxes as crime fiction. A murder does take place right at the beginning but die hard crime fiction fans might find the usual structure of criminal action, detection and resolution, is missing. There is an investigation but it’s very much in the background.

What’s at the forefront is the reaction of the murderer; his terror of being caught, his fears about the affect his apprehension would have on his beloved mother, and the guilt he feels throughout his life.

The novel begins three days before Christmas in the small town of Beauval in the Ardennes. Twelve-year-old Antoine Courtin is a lonely kid, the son of divorced parents, with a dad he barely sees. Alienated from other boys his age because he doesn’t own a PlayStation, he takes refuge in the woods where he builds a tree house. Only Remi Desmedt, the neighbour’s six-year-old son, and the Desmedt’s dog Ulysses are allowed into the sanctuary.

When Ulysses is shot, a traumatised Antoine takes his anger out on Remi, unintentionally killing the child. Panicked, he conceals the body and rushes home. Over the next few days the whole community turn out to search for the missing boy in nearby woods. Antoine is questioned as the last person to have seen the boy alive.

The years roll on, the body is never discovered and though Antoine is haunted by guilt he tries to get on with his life. More than a decade later that new life is threatened when developers buy the land where the child’s body was buried.

Three Days And A Life is a captivating character study of a young boy who must live with the knowledge of the horrific deed he once committed and the fear that one day someone will discover his secret. We share every moment of anxiety and panic this boy experiences, witnessing the drastic actions he considers (such as running away), and how his fear changes his relationship with his mother.

There’s more than a touch of moral ambiguity in this story. Pierre Lemaitre shows a troubled, flawed boy whose actions are abhorrent. We’re given reasons to sympathise with his situation and to question whether his life should be ruined by one moment of madness. But if Antoine’s crime is not discovered, the parents of the dead boy will forever wonder what exactly happened to their son.

Three Days And A Life by Pierre Lemaitre; Endnotes

Pierre Lemaitre built a reputation with a series of crime novels featuring the fictional character Commandant Camille Verhœven. His second novel in the series – Alex, won the CWA International Dagger for best translated crime novel of 2013. In November 2013, he was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary prize, for Au revoir là-haut (published in English as The Great Swindle), an epic about World War I.

Three Days and A Life was published in 2016 under the title Trois jours et une vie; the English translation by Frank Wynne, was published the following year by MacLehose Press.

This was 4th book for  the European Reading Challenge 21 hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader. and the 9th for #TBR21 which is an attempt t read 21 books from my owned-but-unread bookshelves by the end of 2021.

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