Marie Houzelle writes about a French childhood in English.
Tita is the eponymous story of one hell of a smart, sensitive and highly literary seven-year-old girl. This first novel by Marie Houzelle, born and bred in France, has the originality of being written in English, so the reader cannot help suspecting that it is autobiographical. And the English is so good that one attributes little Tita’s fascination with words and languages to the author’s younger self.
Houzelle tells her story in the first person present tense, so we are inside Tita’s head as she observes the world around her, sometimes playing an active role, especially at school, where she is something of a rebel. Tita knows more about grammar than her teacher, Pélican, whom she despises, and is always getting into trouble for backtalking.
At home, however, she is a good girl who sits quietly in the background listening to the adults, often unnoticed by them, watching and mentally recording their behavior and her own reactions and analysis. “Mother likes to talk about me,” she says, concisely revealing a great deal about her chic, self-centered, prevaricating mother. “I might even be one of her favorite topics. Along with dresses, coats, hats, shoes, rings and handbags. There isn’t much difference, for her, between me and a scarf. That’s because I’m quiet.”
Tita offers us such vivid portraits of her whole entourage, including her kindhearted father, an unsuccessful wine dealer who is gradually selling off the family property to make ends meet, and her good-natured, tomboyish little sister, who helps Tita by eating the foods she herself finds revolting, such as cheese and meat of any kind.
The dramas are the small ones of childhood, but some are more serious. Will Tita be kept back in Pélican’s school so that there will be enough students to justify keeping it open (the excuse is that she is not mature enough to move up) or will she be sent to the dreaded boarding school, whose horrible food and emphasis on military-style sports activities she has already had a taste of at summer camp? Or is there another solution for this bright girl who would obviously suffer from either of these two choices?
Although I found the character’s penetrating insight and extreme intelligence difficult to believe even for a precocious seven-year-old (how many seven-year-olds read Stendhal and use the word “mephitic”? – I had to look it up myself), I was still totally engrossed by Tita and longed to go back to it when I was busy doing other things.
What a disappointment it was, then, to turn a page and find that there was suddenly no more to read. Don’t look for closure here; the book just stops in midstream. This is its major fault, and really the only one. Otherwise, it is a charming look at a place and time we non-French can only know through a book like this, written from the vantage point of an insider who, in a sense, turns herself into an outsider by writing in a language that is not her own.
Let’s hope that the book’s abrupt ending means that Tita’s adventures will continue in future novels.