Book Review: Pharricide, by Vincent de Swarte; translated by Nicholas Royle

Pharricide has taken me ages to review, partly because I couldn’t stop reading to make notes. That’s how good it is. I didn’t want to stop and question or think about the story as I read. I wanted to linger in the protagonist’s lighthouse, watching him, being him and seeing the world through his eyes. I read it once and had to reread it, but I didn’t read the blurb.

(I never read book blurbs until I’ve finished reading a book. They give
too much away. I have to make sure I don’t leave a book upside down anywhere. I
don’t want catch a few words of blurb inadvertently as I’m getting into bed.)

So here’s my recommendation: don’t read the blurb and stop reading this
review now. Take it on trust. If you love cleverly constructed mind-bending
literature, you’ll appreciate Pharricide. Buy it. Or pick it up at the
library.

Or you can carry on reading the review. Up to you. But don’t say I didn’t
warn you.

Geoffroy Lafayen is a lighthouse keeper. At first, he seems sympathetic,
even warm. We learn he was bullied as a child, a bit of an outcast. There are
hints of a tragic past. While he says he’s “not particularly sociable,” he
confesses to being kind – “I feel it warming me from inside, this kindness” –
and describes himself as “a big soft doggie”.

You’d have to be a monster not to feel some affection for a big soft
doggie, wouldn’t you?

His past emerges in his random thoughts and memories throughout this
first-person narrative, and with it his tormented and complex character. Details
are drip-fed in throwaway phrases, bracketed in explanatory asides: “(who
looked after me after my mother was sectioned)”. This understatement and lack
of drama make the narrative all the more haunting.

But even Geoffroy’s fondest memories, like eating crayfish with his
mother as a child, are tainted. And slowly the threads of the story are woven
together and the terrible truth is unlayered, so that the reader faces a
reckoning.

Pharricide is Geoffroy Lafayen’s diary, so as he shares his story,
he assumes the reader sees the world the way he sees it. I’d like to call him
an “unreliable narrator”, but then again, he’s far more honest than many
fictional narrators. He’d pass any lie-detector test. This story is his truth
and while you might not want to find yourself alone in a lighthouse with him,
he is strangely likeable.

His steady uncluttered description of what happens means that when
Geoffroy behaves badly, it’s all the more shocking.

(I won’t go into detail here on how badly Geoffroy behaves, let’s just
call it “badly”. I feel uneasy about giving that much away, but then again, I
did warn you not to read the review.)

Geoffroy is not responsible for what he does. He has no control. “It was
as if I had been taken over by my actions,” he tells us. And later, “The great
mass of the lighthouse wrapped me in its blackness.”

There’s a deliberate blurring of the lines between creativity and
destruction, the artist and the psychopath, life and death, that makes Pharricide
much more than a crime novel.

Nicholas Royle’s translation is vivid and raw, and it’s wonderful that
he’s brought this exquisite novel to an English-speaking audience.

When it was first published in France in 1998, it was awarded the Prix
Charles Brisset by the Association Francaise de Psychiatrie – testament to the
authenticity of Geoffroy’s state of mind.

There are layers of significance to explore, not least the symbolism of
the “lighthouse”. This edition includes an interesting afterward by Alison
Moore, which examines that. And there are many questions to ask about recurring
themes in the book: Egypt, for example, or eyes, or two Geoffroys, two Rogers.
What’s that about? But I don’t want to give away too much. I’ve already said
enough.

Pharricide is out now from Cōnfingō Publishing.