Monday, August 11, 2014

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Wharf of Chartrons by Jean-Paul Malaval

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

The pile of books I want to read seems to grow by the day, so it isn’t as if I needed to go out of my way to find an entire category of books that I’ve been neglecting. But I do feel bad that I’m so limited to English-language writers. There is a whole world of wonderful literature out there that I just ignore. Every once in a while I read a translation of some old classic, but what about new books from other countries? What about new historical fiction that is being produced in...say...France? I’m completely missing out on all those books!

Well, not all those books. There is a company called Open Road Media that has a variety of digital media ventures, including foreign translations. One of their imprints is Publishers Square, which brings French authors to U.S. markets. Through Netgalley, I had the opportunity to read a translation of a French historical novel, and it was a treat.

The Wharf of Chartrons by Jean-Paul Malaval is set primarily in Bordeaux just before and during World War I. Two cousins, David Pierrebrune and Gaspard Madelbos, make the decision to break with their families, but not with family tradition, and set up a vineyard in Bordeaux. They come from a long line of winemakers in ChantegrĂȘle. However, diseased vines and old family hatreds have poisoned that area. The young men want to start fresh.

It’s difficult to break into the wine-making business in Bordeaux, where large vintners are already established. It takes money and connections, things the two cousins are lacking. Except that they do know a wealthy, well-connected engineer named Geoffrey Castillard. Castillard is a ruthless businessman who made his fortune in railroads. Now he is interested in investing in wine. He fronts over half the money for the venture. Before they even start, control is taken out of the hands of the honest young wine makers. But maybe that’s for the best given their naivety?

The story follows the rise of their vineyard and the compromises the men make to succeed. Wine-making is not the pure venture they initially imagined. It’s a dirty business built on bribery, corruption and deceit. Gaspard becomes the protegĂ© of the wheeler-dealer Castillard, and finds that he is adept at such business dealings himself. David is much more a man of the land. He stubbornly pretends not to know what is going on. Maybe he doesn’t. But he is very reliant on Gaspard’s salesmanship. And Gaspard relies on David to produce a fine quality wine.

As their winery develops, the two men eventually meet women and fall in love, but those relationships follow two very different courses.

The novel is rather oddly compelling. It is a very interesting look at the politics of turn-of-the-century wine-making in France. The novel paints a picture of corrupt practices and petty local politicians and a concern for profit above all else. The art of wine-making is somewhat left behind, but not the love of wine production.

It’s an interesting story and it held my interest because I wanted to see if they could make a success of the vineyard and how it would survive the economic changes brought on by the war. But it did read awkwardly for a novel. I’m not sure whether it was because it was a translation or whether it’s because the author started his writing career as a journalist, but the book has a very journalistic flavor. The narrator reports on the story. What happens to each of the characters is related in a flat almost monotone way, whether they are buying a piece of property, burying a parent, or consummating a long-desired adulterous affair. The characters seemed to be necessary props for the historical setting. The historical setting was very interesting, but I never did come around to caring about the characters. Usually historical novels work on me the other way around. I get emotionally invested in the characters even when the author doesn’t do a particularly good job of emphasizing the importance of the historical setting.

So if you’re interested in a different perspective on pre-WWI and WWI France or interested in the history of wine-making, particularly the business of French wines, have a look at The Wharf of Chartrons.


  1. I've got this as well from Netgalley. Thanks for the review.

  2. thanks for your nice review Susan. if you are interested in more histfic set in France, we often have some for review at France Book Tours. In fact we just finished a tour for Wharf of Chartrons! come have a look, see the upcoming tours in the sidebar. if one is of interest for you, and you see a form on that page to fill in, it mean there's a spot for you!: