Sunday, July 28, 2013

An Accident in August, by Laurence Cossé

My timing might seem suspicious, but it is pure coincidence that my reading of this book coincided with the advent of the Royal Baby. Still, it didn't seem like such a bad thing to be remembering Lady Di at this hour. In an alternate universe, after all, she is at this moment a doting grandmother.

Laurence Cossé uses the moment that took Diana's life (as well as that of her fiance and her driver) as the catalyst for this suspense novel, which imagines the story of the driver of the mysterious 'slow moving car' that had the world speculating for weeks after a certain high speed accident in a Paris tunnel  onAugust 31, 1997. It is not so much the Princess of Wales' life as it is the aftermath of her death that is evoked in this novel and then only as the background to the situation of its protagonist, Lou, the fictional driver of the Fiat Uno that the famous Mercedes collided with.

As the novel opens, Lou knows she has just made a mistake, but doesn't yet know the magnitude of it, nor does she even understand why she chose to flee the scene rather than stopping. What she does know is that her life has changed overnight. The question is, what is she going to do about it?

Other novelists might imagine a happy life, shattered, but this is not precisely the tack that Cossé takes. Although at first we are simply absorbed in Lou's current plight, gradually we come to understand that until this moment, Lou's life has been somehow incomplete. She has recently allowed her boyfriend to move into her flat but is already beginning to regret this a little, and we come to realize that this isn't really about him, but about her. As her predicament unfolds, what she notably doesn't do is include him in on it. So even before the crisis occurs, there is a 'me against the world' mentality in Lou. And what Lou discovers as the book goes on is that the crisis brings out both her strength and her resourcefulness. Without giving away any more of the plot, I will divulge that by the end of the novel, Lou is not so much a changed person as a truer version of herself.

Although Diana's life doesn't play a huge part in the story--Cossé refers to it in passing from time to time--it's clear that it is this particular car crash and no other that could have set this story off and running. A key theme is the nature of celebrity, and Lou could be said to be an anti-Diana, both in physical type and in her loathing of the idea of fame--not just notoriety, but any kind of fame whatsoever. Not wanting to have her picture taken in connection with the accident is not just a preference, it is part of the core of her sense of identity and strength.

The novel first came out in France in 2003, though Europa didn't bring it out in English until 2011. Our distance from Diana is greater now than when the book was written. What oddly seems at an even greater distance, though, is the era in which the book is set. We don't realize how much the world has changed until we read a book set pre-millennium. Lou keeps track of how far the police may be from apprehending her by reading various editions of the papers. Perhaps it is different even now in France, but in my part of the U.S., papers coming out at different times of day is a thing of the past. Lou's world seems rich in print options, and following her story involves wading through many more pages than we would do today. At the same time, today she wouldn't be going out for papers at all. She'd be holed up, reading them on her computer, or perhaps her smart phone.

Even now, conspiracy theories are alive and well about who was driving that Fiat Uno--and why. But in 2006, the Daily Mail published a convincing story about who the driver is likely to have been. The person in question isn't much like Lou superficially, but there are some strong similarities all the same. Whether or not Le Van was driving the Fiat Uno that night, Lou would find much to commiserate with in his (non self-incriminating) statement:

"The experience has been hell for me. It almost ruined my life, but I have been strong and pulled through.
"My family and friends have been badly affected. It has to stop now, but I fear that it never will."

(This post was originally posted on The Europa Challenge Blog, a challenge that I'm currently running pathetically behind on.)

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