Reviewed by Rod McLary
In the Author’s Note at the end of this intriguing and insightful novel, Samira Sedira says ‘[literature] dwells in darkness and tries to bring forth light’ . The author has done exactly that in People Like Them – a novel inspired by a mass homicide in 2003 in France, in which the victims were from a family of five.
The heinous act at the centre of this novel is the killing of Bakary and Sylvia Langlois and their three children by Constant Guillot a neighbour and erstwhile friend of the family. The similarities between the murders within the novel and the 2003 murders which ‘loosely inspired’ it end at this point.
Almost from the beginning of the book, there is no doubt about its subject. ‘They say there were screams, gunshots, begging. But the chalet walls absorbed everything. Carnage behind closed doors’ . The author – from the first page – takes the reader deep into a psychological exploration of the reasons Constant Guillot chose to brutally murder five members of one family. Written in the first person and narrated by Constant’s wife Anna, the novel in a rather unusual way addresses Constant directly as in ‘To look at you, it must have seemed as if you hadn’t changed’ . This suggests that Anna is still processing the events of that fateful evening and struggling to capture an understanding of what drove Constant to commit the murders – an understanding that consistently eludes her.
Juxtaposed against Anna’s narration are extracts from Constant’s trial transcripts where Constant is questioned by the judge and the prosecutor in their vain attempts to understand what motivated Constant to kill the Langlois family. If there is an answer to the question ‘why’, it will be found not in the transcripts but in Anna’s narration as she takes the reader back to the arrival of Bakary and Sylvia in July 2015 in the small [fictional] village of Carmac in France. From the beginning, the Langlois family imposes itself on the village. In their first public appearance, Bakary and Sylvia walked from their new house to a local wedding and, from the perspective of the wedding guests, they were ‘coming toward us like some supernatural entity’ .
As well as their expensive clothes, house and cars, what was observed by everyone, almost in passing, was Bakary’s ‘black face’. The fact that Bakary is of African heritage runs like an undercurrent through the novel. While racism is not always made explicit in the novel, there are continued references to Bakary’s colour which imply that, at the very least, it was never unnoticed. Constant in particular uses expressions as ‘the big darkie’, ‘an African upstart’ and ‘the ape swimming in cash’; although he denied in court that his comments had anything to do with racism – ‘they’re words, they’re just words’ .
In spite of these pejorative references to Bakary, he and Constant become friends of a kind. Bakary invited Constant over at weekends to play baseball, to watch action movies, or to have a drink and a cigar. Although on the surface, a friendship develops, it is what exists beneath the surface that the author is most interested in – and by extension, what the reader intuits from the barely acknowledged tensions in the so-called friendship. When Bakary prevails upon Constant to buy into an investment plan – for which he is obliged to borrow from his parents – the seeds are sown for a dénouement as unexpected as it is violent.
The author has captured the inner tensions and latent shame in Constant as he struggles with the highly visible success and wealth of the Langlois family while he and Anna barely survive financially. On an impulse, Anna offers to become the cleaner for the Langlois family – to which Constant responds ‘But not for the neighbours, not the neighbours!’ . Was this the final humiliation for Constant which drove him to commit murder? The answer is unknown. One of the strengths of People Like Them is that the author does not fall back on ready explanations or solutions. No one – not even Anna – had any indication that Constant was ‘capable of such savagery’ .
The final part of the novel takes place ‘One year after the end of the trial’ when Anna – for the first time since the trial – visits Constant. For the first time, Anna can express her emotions freely without shame. The author with remarkable insight describes Anna’s conflicting emotions – shame, confusion, anxiety – and the lifting of a ‘crushing weight’ from her as she readies herself to see Constant.
People Like Them is a relatively short novel but one that contains a power and intelligence which makes it a joy to read in spite of its subject matter. The author’s insight into both Anna and Constant brings their inner worlds to the fore and consequently the reader begins to understand them both. An excellent book and well recommended.
People Like Them
by Samira Sedira
ISBN 978 15266 3860 1