Filler content with big spiders

This review was posted to the old TTA Press website on the 8th of June 2007:-

Serpent’s Tail paperback, 128pp, £7.99

Translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith, this 1995 novel from a writer described as ‘an exponent of the hardboiled style of French noir influenced by post-May 1968 politics’ is soon, we are told, to be made into a Pedro Almodovar feature film.

There are three strands to the story. The first is told from the viewpoint of famous plastic surgeon Richard Lafargue, whose daughter is in a lunatic asylum. Richard keeps his partner Eve a virtual prisoner, abusing her both physically and psychologically, forcing her to go with other men. In the second we get the troubles of young thug Vincent Moreau, abducted by an unknown assailant and kept prisoner in a basement room until his spirit is completely broken and he starts to ‘love’ his captor in a textbook example of Stockholm Syndrome. Finally there’s Alex Barny, a crook and former friend of Moreau, now in hiding from the police after a robbery that went disastrously wrong. Alex decides that he needs a new face if he is to make good his escape, and so tracks down Richard intent on forcing him to co-operate by threatening Eve, a development that brings these three strands crashing together.

If you can swallow the huge coincidence at the heart of this book, then what we are left with is a compelling story, one that embraces madness and abuse, written with psychological acuity and an appreciation of the dynamics in the relationship between a torturer and his victim. Tarantula is not a book for the squeamish. There are no nice people here; just monsters acting out their amorality against a shifting backdrop. We start out sympathising with the tortured Vincent (some of the descriptions of the treatment meted out to him, the deprivation and mental anguish, are truly appalling) and recoiling from the abusive actions of Richard towards Eve, but as black and white fade into grey and the reasons for what is taking place are laid out, culminating in the shocking revelations of the book’s final pages, it becomes possible to understand these people, to appreciate if not condone why they are acting as they do, so that the reader is every bit as adrift in a sea of moral uncertainty as Jonquet’s characters. As unsettling as anything in the oeuvre of Derek Raymond, Tarantula is a disturbing examination of revenge, that dish best served cold and which often consumes the giver. It asks hard questions of the reader by putting us into the shoes of both victim and torturer, abused and abuser, questions about how we might act in similar circumstances and which few of us will be able to answer with any real confidence.

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