First published in 1965 in France, Albertine Sarrazin - a 19 year old former inmate and prostitute took the French literary world by storm with her debut novel “Astragal”. Considering the subject matter of this very well written book - which draws on her own experiences - it isn’t much of a surprise that the comparisons to fellow French author Jean Genet would become commonplace. There are similarities to Genet but Sarrazin has her own voice, the only comparison to really note here is the subject matter of the story, not so much the style of writing.
The novel has a simple story: Anne, a young inmate in an all women’s prison, decided to one day make a break for it, leaping over the compound’s wall to her freedom, breaking her ankle as she lands. She pulls herself along the road, looking for a ride to get away from the area as far as possible. She’s first turned down by a truck driver, who didn’t want any part of her. Then she meets Julien - a small time criminal who agrees to help her. Julien takes her to his mother’s house, which is soon revealed to be a brothel. Unable to move due to her broken ankle, she’s taken care of by Julien until she’s able to heal. She and Julien fall in love but he remains somewhat unattainable due to the nature of his “business”. Once healed, she sets out on her own, prostituting herself for money and living in the center of Paris, falling in with another man, Jean, moving in to his apartment but all the while keeping her eye out for Julien, who may or may not have been arrested and sent to prison.
The prose is, at first, a little hard to follow but as the novel progresses you soon realize that it’s tight, almost claustrophobic sensibility perfectly reflects the mood of the novel as well as Anne’s position. In one sense, she’s escaped one prison only to find herself in another; and while she ruminates on her time in prison, you can’t help but feel that she feels exactly the same way in her new surroundings: trapped, immobile, at the mercy of others. You feel her desire to be set free.