Little Rebel, by Jérôme Leroy – book review

That was bleak. It was funny too, but, my, it was bleak. Little Rebel, a novella set in an unnamed port in the west of France, describes the taut atmosphere of a town built on the fault line of community tensions. Little Rebel is about a terrorist plot, the half baked thinking behind it and its slapdash execution. Jérôme Leroy gives us a cinematic short, full of close-up vignettes but a sense that things are out of control elsewhere.

Little Rebel cover

Leroy’s narrator is having far too much fun, given the circumstances. There are asides to the audience and a jovial pitch which is highly meta, incongruous and spot on. He sighs theatrically as he points out that this character has been dispatched, or that one is here only to provide some narrative contrast. He tells us that modern building standards are as bad as they were 40 years ago ‘but this time with environmental norms’. His cynicism is staggering, effective and amusing. And it helps that although there’s plenty of violence, it’s largely personal or involves small groups. Leroy relishes detail, and the complexities and inconsistencies that make individuals tick. Yes, there is the shooting and the antagonism, but it’s almost as though these are priced in. We weren’t expecting to laugh so it’s the wit that hits you. It’s a little surreal and absurd. Translator Graham Roberts really captures the style of it all.

And yet, even if the main action – the riots and violence – is off-screen, the Little Rebel is right there, in plain sight. And the jokes and the asides can’t hide the grim reality in which the first death is described in a complex first sentence – the first sentence – that pulls together a shooting, a radicalised racist, and a man who will later become a humanitarian activist. The racist and the activist are the same man. Little Rebel is about life stories, about the day-to-day life of the forgotten and the rejected. The man killed in the first sentence is the closest to a role model, if by role model we mean someone capable of holding down a real relationship (not bragging about one while literally hiding in a bin) and doing some kind of job reasonably well. Most of the adults in the book fail at both of these, and the young adults are too busy taking themselves as seriously as they should at that age. They’re all pretty messed up, even if Leroy seems to present some of them relatively sympathetically. 

Leroy doesn’t zoom out very much, but we know that had he done so, we’d have been appalled at what we’d see. He’s explained a bit about the local council, run by the Patriotic Bloc who show they’re in charge by renaming roads after National Front figures and by shovelling jobs to like-minded locals. We’d need to know more about the influence wielded by the Imam, and the lies spread on social media which have caused the school’s librarian to arc from being a left-wing firebrand in the 1970s to a woman who swallows conspiracy theories these days. We can’t cover all that in 77 pages. But we can deal with ambiguity and wonder our response to the Little Rebel’s final acts.

I guess that’s it. For such a short book Little Rebel packs some. Although it’s definitely one strictly for an adult audience, it’s entertaining in its bleakness. And the low investment of time required to read it will yield strong returns in its fresh openness about sores both systematic and personal.

Thanks to Corylus Books for the review copy and to Ewa Sherman for the invitation to take part in the blog tour.

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