Remember to Come up for Air When You Read ‘They Say Sarah’

Debut They Say Sarah is a vivid impressionistic novel that churns the entire emotional spectrum.

They Say Sarah
Pauline Delabroy-Allard
June 2020

To read They Say Sarah is to understand what it means for a novel to be ‘breathtaking’. By the time I’d consumed the first half of the book – in under an hour – I felt like I had barely come up for air.

It’s only partly due to the vivid sexual passion around which the book is crafted. French writer Pauline Delabroy-Allard has created, in her literary debut, a deeply impressionistic novel which thrusts the reader from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. The impact is stunning; from the opening chapter the momentum doesn’t let up.

The loose plot – barely relevant to the book’s effect – involves a nameless female narrator in her 30s who meets a vivacious violinist at a party and the two embark on a torrid romantic affair. The momentum builds quickly; from their introduction (the narrator thinks she’s a weird girl who wears too much makeup and smokes and laughs too much) to confession of love is barely eight pages; explosive sexual passion follows three pages later. The book is divided into dozens of short, episodic chapters – some less than a page – each of which conveys moments and spaces of their relationship in stunningly crafted, impressionistic prose.

Delabroy-Allard’s use of language is magnificent (and Adriana Hunter‘s translation does a superb job of maintaining the effect). The accelerated sense of momentum is conveyed by an unfettered use of present tense. Long run-on sentences are coupled with staccato-like short, repetitive clauses. Time is condensed; seconds stretch into paragraphs and days merge in mere sentences. The sweeping emotional effect is a reminder of the potency of language.

“She walks in step with me down the street that runs along the front of the Fifteenth Arrondissement’s Mairie. She’s light-hearted, talking nonsense, laughing about everything. She dips into a brown paper bag for fistfuls of cherries and gobbles them uninhibitedly. She thinks it’s funny that I get embarrassed when she comes too close to me, when her hand tries to catch hold of mine. She says oh it’s fine who gives a damn about your students, we’re educating them, that’s a good thing, isn’t it. She eats her cherries as she walks along and spits the pips out onto the street. She says oh it’s fine do you really think your colleagues haven’t seen lesbians before. She pushes me into the lobby of a building. She presses the button for the lift, she pulls me by the arm when it arrives. She smacks her mouth against mine when I say this isn’t very responsible, I’m going to be late and we can’t do this. She says seeing as you don’t want me to kiss you outside your school, I’ve got to find somewhere. She chooses the top floor, the eleventh. There’s wall-to-wall carpeting, neatly lined-up doors, slightly muffled bursts of conversation coming from around us. She pushes me up against the wall, strokes my teeth with her tongue, bruises my breasts with her fingers. She smells of blue leather and thundering desire.”

Erotic, yes. But the beauty of They Say Sarah is that it lashes its vividly erotic prose to a thoughtfully constructed literary framework, producing by the end of its scant 160 pages an elevated statement on the human condition.

Inevitably the women’s relationship hits snags: arguments, self-assertion, the demands of professional life and parental responsibility. In They Say Sarah we glean the familiar elements of a passion struggling to give way to more balanced contentment, like an airplane trying to achieve cruising altitude after its tumultuous, turbulent rise through the clouds. But what happens when that balance eludes us? When sustained passion gets the better of us?

It’s noteworthy that each woman embraces her own forms of symbolic abandon, prefiguring her ardor for the other. The narrator’s indulgence is cinema, which she consumes with a devotion that is as visceral as it is intellectual. Sarah is a violinist; her passion is music. The love they feel for each other is a visceral enactment of these deep interests. It is portrayed with all the emotional intensity, the movements and crescendos and diminuendos of a symphony. It also unrolls with the immediacy of a film, quotidian spaces of daily life vanishing amid the thrill of passion and discovery.

Delabroy-Allard deserves all the praise she’s received for portraying the development of the women’s relationship; the passion of its early days and the ragged imperfections of its growing intensity as they each struggle to achieve balance.

Yet balance eludes them. Here is where the book both assumes parallels, yet also parts ways with that timeworn genre of queer novels featuring inevitably doomed protagonists. It is not homophobia that threatens the women’s relationship (although they do experience homophobic episodes as the story plays out) but rather their conscious abandonment of the self. It’s something with which they both struggle, and it is to Delabroy-Allard’s credit that she doesn’t depict either character as exclusively worthy of blame. It is, once again, with the ebbs and flows of a symphonic movement that the two women alternate roles; each seeking balance and space to the consternation of the other at different points and in different ways.

The first half of the book charts the rise of their relationship; then Sarah develops cancer, and the second half of the book immerses the reader in a whole new spectrum of emotions: sorrow, denial, regret, escapism. I differ from other reviewers in preferring the first half of the book; its pure and unadulterated depiction of rising sexual attraction is the most breathtaking literary impressionism to appear in print in recent years. If lesbian protagonists must continue to suffer and sorrow in literature, it’s at least fitting that they deserve the most exciting passion as well.

The book’s vivid emotional lure masks a deeper statement on our collective inability to achieve — let alone balance — love in a contemporary world where most of us just struggle along plagued by a faintly numb sense of always desiring more. In a world that places disproportionate value on all the things their relationship threatens to leave by the wayside – career, family obligations, professional advancement – there’s something deeply attractive about a relationship to which we can simply surrender ourselves. The idea of abandoning ourselves to a great passion offers a vital counterpoint to the tedium of seemingly arbitrary responsibilities many of us face.

There remains a universality to Tennyson’s argument “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all” whose relevance is often forgotten in today’s world. If we were to rephrase it as a question – “Is it better to have loved and lost?” – it becomes a riddle that is perhaps as unanswerable by those who’ve loved and lost as by those who’ve never loved at all.

For those who may never have felt the former, Delabroy-Allard’s short, brilliantly impressionistic novel offers the closest thing to experiencing it; and the ambiguity of her protagonist’s final answer to that question reminds us that both love and loss are an indelible, yet insurmountable, part of the human condition.