Translated from French by Melanie Florence
This is a fictionalised account of the life of Hélène Jégado – a notorious serial poisoner in 1800s France – from her birth to death.
I was expecting something dark in a serious way, but it’s more of a black comedy. There are two men from Normandy that keep popping up in every town Hélène does who gradually suffer more and more ridiculous misfortune. Some of Hélène’s kills are also pretty farcical – particularly when she’s cooking and working in the brothel. The style of humour reminded me of The 100-Year-Old Man by Jonas Jonasson, so if you weren’t keen on that then you probably won’t like this.
For the majority of the book, Hélène moves from house to house, getting a job as a cook, poisoning people with her little cakes and soupes aux herbes, then moving to another house, getting a job as cook, poisoning people, etc. It meant that a lot of the book felt repetitive as the houses and their occupants just weren’t different enough from each other. It felt less repetitive when she worked in the brothel and with the nuns, because those situations were different enough to stand out (particularly with the nuns – she is prevented from being the cook so cannot kill, so sets about destroying their possessions and cutting holes in their habits in rather revealing places). The end section, after she is caught, also flowed a bit better for me, mainly because it was different.
I think what also contributed to the repetitiveness was that she has no real motive for killing who she kills – she just kills whoever she comes across – and then makes no attempt to cover it up. Having a killer who just kills for killing’s sake is fine, but, as there’s not enough time to get to know the secondary characters before they’re dead, it consequently became a little flat without a kind of richness of plot or character.
There were some great descriptive bits of 1800s Brittany, and the conflict between the superstitious Bretons and the religious French was interesting, particularly the darker side of the Bretons’ superstitions, like the statue of Our-Lady-of-Hatred (a Virgin Mary with a painted-on skeleton body and wrinkles) where people go to pray for misfortune to come to others. Hélène herself is obsessed with the Ankou (death’s worker), and believes she is doing the Ankou’s work (her only real motive through the book).
A dark black comedy that felt too repetitive and little flat for a good chunk of the book. But you might like it if you liked the humour in The 100-Year-Old Man.
The Poisoning Angel is published on 14th July 2014.
I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review.