As if the reader were riding shotgun, this intensely vivid novel captures a life on the lam. "L'astragale" is the French word for the ankle bone Albertine Sarrazin's heroine Anne breaks as she leaps from her jail cell to freedom. As she drags herself down the road, away from the prison walls, she is rescued by Julien, himself a small-time criminal, who keeps her hidden. They fall in love. Fear of capture, memories of her prison cell, claustrophobia in her hideaways: every detail is fiercely felt.
Astragal burst onto the French literary scene in 1965; its fiery and vivacious style was entirely new, and Sarrazin became a celebrity overnight. But as fate would have it, Sarrazin herself kept running into trouble with the law, even as she became a star.
She died from a botched surgery at the height of her fame. Sarrazin's life and work (her novels are semi-autobiographical) have been the subject of intense fascination in France; a new adaptation of Astragal is currently being filmed. Patti Smith, who brought Astragal to the attention of New Directions, contributes an enthusiastic introduction to one of her favorite writers.
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The story -- drawn from Sarrazin's own life -- of Anne's escape from prison, subsequent incapacitating ankle break (the book is named for the bone she snaps), and arduous recovery, is so alive with Anne's voice that reading it, one wants simply to remain in her presence, to sit by her bedside as she squirms, frustrated, towards recovery. Anne makes good company.
The prose is hard-boiled, funny, sometimes gross, oscillating between indolence and intensity, riddled with ellipses and exclamation points. It is wayward, hard to pin down; it can't be forced to behave. There are associative leaps, synesthetic flights, and characters introduced without preamble or identification. Sarrazin brooked no exposition, no laborious knitting of circumstance to circumstance. One might call her style stream-of-consciousness, but that modernist term fails to account for the impression of Pop hyperreality that communicates itself through her steady drumbeat of allusions.