Imagine a Stephen King thriller hijacked by Proust. Clammy-handed suspense, nerve-shredding tension, but related in serpentine, elegant prose, each climax held suspended – deferred gratification. What Javier Marías did for the spy story, Laurent Mauvignier does for terror.
It begins quietly, with an ominous sense of something waiting to happen. An isolated hamlet in deep rural France; just three houses, one empty, one occupied by a family – Patrice, a farmer, his wife Marion and ten-year-old daughter Ida. In the third, Christine, an elderly bohemian artist, enjoys the seclusion with her dog for company. Each of these characters in turn will take up the narrative in a tortuous relay race. The Birthday Party shares its title with the Harold Pinter play, which could be a clue: in both, an innocent family group is invaded by elaborately polite strangers who take over first the arrangements for the celebration and then the lives of everyone involved.
The action unfolds over 36 hours as Patrice prepares a modest surprise party for Marion’s 40th birthday. An independent spirit with a demanding job in the nearby town, she has a mysterious past. Patrice is a loving husband and devoted father, but he is in serious debt, battling to hold on to the family farm. Everyone has secrets, and there are stresses in the marriage which they try to conceal from Ida, who sees more than they realise. Christine and her paintings provide a place of safety and joy for the child.
On the day of the party Christine is baking a birthday cake when she’s confronted by a stranger asking to be shown round the neighbouring empty house.