"Bitter Almonds" by Laurence Cosse

A deceptively simple novel about a middle aged French housewife/translator - Edith - who agrees to hire a 65 year old Moroccan woman - Fadila - to do the ironing and various other chores around her home. Upon meeting her, Edith is horrified to discover that Fadila was illiterate and sets about to teach Fadila how to read and write. 


The bulk of the novel consists of just that - Edith sitting down with Fadila, trying to teach her to read and write and at times it can become a little repetitive. But as the novel slowly unfolds we begin to learn a little more about Fadila’s life, which is in direct contrast to the comfortable, middle class and educated life Edith takes for granted. Set in modern day Paris, the city itself and its way of life is in stark contrast to that of Fadilia’s upbringing. Even though Fadila’s life in Paris isn’t easy either and despite her frustrations and her ongoing familial battles, she maintains her sense of dignity, although her outlook on life is more cynical and bitter than that of Edith’s. As Edith grows more frustrated with trying to teach Fadila how to read, you wonder whether or not it is Edith that will learn something from Fadila rather than the other way around. 


Edith does go out of her way to help Fadila but there is this sense of “pity” coming from her that Fadilia simply doesn’t want to deal with, this sort of “middle class woman looking down on” this poor peasant woman from the mountains of Morocco and one can’t help think if this is something of an allegory about France’s attitudes towards immigration and its former “colonial subjects”. Despite being at odds at times, their friendship does blossom into a genuine one, although I’m not sure if Edith ever truly “gets” Fadila and how her harsh life had effected her attitudes. There are most certainly issues of equality, class, privilege and gender roles that are peppered throughout the story but it was more under the surface than out front in the narrative. Perhaps it would have been a much stronger novel had these issues been more thoroughly explored. However, it isn’t a bad novel, just one that takes a while to start unraveling its meaning.


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