Frère d’âme — David Diop

I was excited to visit some of my favourite bookshops in Bordeaux, including very lovely La Machine à Lire, where I got this.

Happily, unlike last year’s International Booker winner — the bleak and disturbing Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld — I thought this was excellent. Frère d’âme (“soul brother”, titled At Night All Blood Is Black in the English edition) is the story of a Senegalese soldier, Alfa Ndiaye, fighting for France during the First World War.

This is another bleak and disturbing winner. Diop imagines the total mental breakdown of the soldier, triggered in part by the death at the start of the novel of his “more-than-brother”, his “soul brother”.

If anything, Diop’s novel is much more harrowing, brutal and violent than Rijneveld’s story of bereavement and family dysfunction, but it is much less gratuitously so. With rhythmic, repetitive, up-close first-person prose, Diop plunges us into the trauma, breakdown and madness that Ndiaye experiences. It is a captivating right to its tragic end — a brilliant read on another devastating facet of the First World War.

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