The Foundling Boy by Michel Déon is a modern classic of French literature published in France as Le Jeunne homme vert by Gallimard in 1975 but only recently finding its way into English. Déon is an immortel (a member of the Académie Française), has won all kinds of prestigious awards, published over 50 books, and been translated into many different languages – just not English, to our shame and despite the fact that he lives in Ireland. So thank heavens for Gallic Books and translator Julian Evans for starting to put that right!
It is 1919. On a summer’s night in Normandy, a new-born baby is left in a basket outside the home of Albert and Jeanne Arnaud. The childless couple take the foundling in, name him Jean, and decide to raise him as their own, though his parentage remains a mystery.
Though Jean’s life is never dull, he grows up knowing little of what lies beyond his local area. Until the day he sets off on his bicycle to discover the world, and encounters a Europe on the threshold of interesting times…
It took me a little while to get into this book and I found the author’s interruptions into the narrative rather irritating, but fortunately they become less frequent as it gets going. Jean is an intriguing and appealing character living in what are indeed interesting times, in every sense. I have studied the interwar years from both a British and a German perspective, so it was fascinating to have a French view of them – and also a French view of the English and Germans in that period via Jean’s travels and friendships. I particularly enjoyed the role played by Jean’s cycling, both in giving him freedom to travel and in the opportunities it affords the narrator to take side-swipes at those who just don’t get it.
The narrative is strong and the supporting characters are also vibrantly drawn, from lovable rogues to misguided but friendly Hitler Youths. There are tormented jealousies, unworldly artists, philanderers, con-men, lovers and mysterious princes. It’s sweeping in scale, entertaining to read and ends on a cliff-hanger. I am very much looking forward to the sequel The Foundling’s War when it comes out later in the year.