Book Review: The Governesses by Anne Serre
In The Governesses, Anne Serre builds an enchanted, magic atmosphere where everything happens in the shadows. In a large, secluded house in the countryside, the three titular governesses employed by Monsieur and Madame Austeur, Laura, Eléonore, Inès are preparing for a party. The group of young boys in their care are running and playing around the house. As the Monsieur and Madame are running late, the narrative moves to the governesses’ secret passtime. A stranger crosses the gates of the estate and wanders in the vast garden. It’s not the first time a stranger has been lured in and then chased by the governesses, as they go out into the garden and catch up with him. “Eléonore has pounced on him, seizing him from behind with both hands. They’ve laid him out on the ground and are unbuttoning his trousers.” In a fusion of modern fairytale and magical realism, she explores the darkness around and within the characters and the setting they inhabit, while leaving the surface deceive you with its eerie serenity and ordinariness.
The three governesses exist and act as one. Dialogue, or even speech, is almost non-existent in the book, with Serre opting for a nuanced inner narrative that manifests outwardly. One degree removed from the directness of a first-person narrative, the governesses’ voice is nevertheless reminiscent of Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides. A sort of collective unity in voice and drive that allows these characters to go from being three governesses to being the governesses – they think, move, and dominate the landscape as one.
In the tradition of Angela Carter, Serre employs language and imagery that bring the fairytale staples back to their dark, sexually-charged roots while at the same time exploring masculinity and gender dynamics through a feminist lens. The female characters include the governesses, Madame Austeur, and her maids. Beside the group of young boys roaming around the house, the other male characters are the men who wander into the garden and become the subjects of the governesses’ desires and fantasies, the old gentleman who watches them from across the street with a telescope, and of course Monsieur Austeur. The latter is the only male presence inside the house, and is described as holding the centre of the house while everyone is asleep, simply by sitting in his study and smoking. As the real reason of the governesses’ employment is revealed, the dynamics of the characters become more and more interesting in their dissection.
As a modern fairytale about desire, sexuality, and youth, The Governesses easily lends itself to interpretation and analysis, often presenting more questions with every answer. The relationship between the main trio and their employers, the group of young boys, the mysterious man observing their every move, even the quasi-gothic setting and the secluded house and the garden which often take on lives of their own – they are all vehicles expertly used to construct a literary structure that stands for more than its individual components, and a depth that begs for a second and third reading. The book can be described as a contemporary dark fairytale, but it is more than that, as it is written with the sensibility of a writer who won’t settle for genre-specific tropes and adds more dimensions to her characters to build realistic, complex protagonists, even in the magical atmosphere of the book.
The Governesses is the first book by Anne Serre to appear in English, translated by Mark Hutchinson. It is published by Les Fugitives in the UK, a publisher of contemporary French writing in translation, and is out on 2 April.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.