This Strange Eventful History by Claire Messud review – an epic family odyssey

<span>The family’s native Algeria is a safe but unwelcoming harbour from war in Europe.</span><span>Photograph: Jean-Pierre Prevel/AFP/Getty Images</span>
The family’s native Algeria is a safe but unwelcoming harbour from war in Europe.Photograph: Jean-Pierre Prevel/AFP/Getty Images

Claire Messud’s ambitious and compelling novel covers the lives of three generations of a Franco-Algerian family. Here are some of the events that are not described in it: the Algerian war of independence, as a result of which the Cassar family lose their home and national identity; the two years the family’s most promising scion spends as a student in Paris, during which he endures something (racist bullying? Mental collapse?) that blights his adult life; his sister’s broken-hearted suicide attempt; an alcoholic’s hard-won recovery; the courtship of a couple who have been held up throughout the novel as exemplars of married love and yet whose relationship – as we discover only in the final pages – was shockingly transgressive. Any of these developments could have provided more than enough material for the plot of a lesser novel. Here they take place off stage.

Shakespeare’s Jaques, from As You Like It, declared that the “strange eventful history” of human life has seven “acts” or “ages”. Messud has taken her structure as well as her title from his famous speech. Her story is a drama and she tells it, as dramatists do, in episodes, each separated from the next by a decade or so, leaving the in-between parts of the narrative to be inferred or recalled or sometimes foreshadowed, always remaining subsidiary to the immediate onstage events.

Slowly we’re allowed to glimpse the traumas and tensions and the private joys that have shaped these people’s existences

She begins in 1940 in Salonica (now Thessaloniki), as the Germans sweep into France and Gaston Cassar hears General de Gaulle make his broadcast calling on those French still “free” to join him and carry on the fight (Gaston doesn’t heed the call, and will be haunted by that choice). She ends 70 years later, in 2010, in Connecticut, as Gaston’s son dies in a hospice, tended by a Haitian nurse whose name, like his – they are François and Françoise – alludes to a language and nationality foisted on them by colonial history.

Gaston is in Salonica as naval attaché to the French embassy. He has sent his wife, Lucienne, and children out of harm’s way to their native Algeria. When they arrive in the country they think of as their own they find themselves unwanted by relatives and unwelcomed by anyone in the dusty village where they settle. Separation, estrangement, the impossibility of home in the minds of those whose lives are uprooted by colonialism – Messud’s big themes are announced at the outset.

She tells us in a postscript that “the Cassar family’s movements hew closely to those of my own family”. She has written more obliquely about her own partly Algerian inheritance and her forebears’ migrations in previous novels, but here she squarely confronts what it means to pride yourself on belonging to a country that looks down on you as a Pied-Noir, and how it feels to pass most of your life inhabiting a culture whose tastes and humour are alien to you – to be forever a stranger.

Related: ‘Is it a betrayal?’ Claire Messud on writing her family into fiction

These are matters of widely shared experience, but what gives this novel its exceptional vitality is that Messud never allows collective issues to take precedence over individual lives. Gaston and Lucienne, their children Denise and François and eventually François’s Canadian wife Barbara, their daughters Loulou and Chloe (the latter addressing us directly in the first person, in tacit acknowledgment that she is the author’s fictional persona), a large supporting cast of in-laws and lovers and employers and servants and friends – all of these people live, being credibly and engagingly irritating or generous or overbearing or vulnerable.

Not only do they live – thanks to the novel’s bold reach and multiple viewpoints, they change. Barbara’s mother, when we first meet her through François’s consciousness, is a nightmare of a mother-in-law – demanding, bigoted and self-pitying. When we come across her again, years later, seen through the eyes of a child, she is a dream of a grandmother – intuitive, generous, cosy to cuddle up with. There is consistency; Denise is always a misfit. But there is also development. In the 1970s, Barbara is so focused on claiming her own feminist liberation that her husband envies the love given to the family dog, but at the ends of their lives, Barbara, sweetly dependent, holds hands with him under the tablecloth.

Messud’s writing at the start is formal, her tone detached. Only gradually does her prose relax, her language reflecting a loosening up of social convention, and also hinting at a breakdown of the walls of secrecy that have hidden her characters from us and – in many instances – from themselves. Slowly, and only ever partially, we are allowed to glimpse the traumas and tensions and the intensely private joys that have shaped these people’s existences.

This is, in several senses, a literary novel. The Cassars are readers, and some of them are writers. Messud is aware of her antecedents, both national and cultural. Camus’s influence is palpable. Jacques Derrida is at school with one of her characters. Another develops a passion for Patricia Highsmith. Books are potent for these people and for their author.

One reference in particular illuminates Messud’s double-sided project. Jaques was talking about human life in general when he spoke of the seven ages. Messud’s vision is correspondingly large, but she also alludes pointedly to Un Coeur Simple, in which Flaubert recounts an almost eventless life story, quietly insisting that it is fiction’s job not only to see the bigger picture, but also to focus in on individuals, and celebrate each person’s precious uniqueness. This is a big novel spanning continents and generations, but it also has the essential small virtues of precision and imaginative sympathy.

• This Strange Eventful History by Claire Messud is published by Fleet (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.