‘They Say Sarah’ Is a Powerful Debut About a Passionate Love Affair by Pauline Delabroy-Allard

They Say Sarah Book CoverThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Pauline Delabroy-Allard‘s debut novel, They Say Sarah, explores the passionate relationship between two women. The narrator, a lonely, thirty-something teacher raising a young daughter falls in love with the eponymous Sarah–a passionate, talented violinist prone to capricious shifts in mood and interest. Their intense relationship burns with an almost violent love, an obsessive kind of yearning that could easily turn to hate. Divided into two parts, Delabroy-Allard chronicles the relationship from friendship to passionate affair to heartbreak in lyrical, poignant prose even as the unnamed lover falls deeper and deeper into nightmarish despair.

The novel’s first half is its strongest. Delabroy-Allard describes the relationship’s meteoric rise in all its intensity with concise, vignette-like chapters. Sarah’s hunger-panged desire is an empty stomach that devours everything, from the physical attachment of her relationship with the narrator to food and drink. She is insatiable, and the narrator is completely taken in by her. But Sarah’s larger-than-life personality – consistently prone to excess – leads to a tempestuous relationship that veers from loving, worshipful happiness to explosions of anger and bitterness.

In the novel’s second half, it’s revealed that Sarah has cancer. The narrator is keen to look after her, but Sarah wishes to end their relationship. The descriptive beauty of the first half turns into something slightly scattered and difficult to follow in the second half as the narrator, believing Sarah is dead, flees to Italy. While there, she obsesses over what transpired at the end of her relationship with Sarah, but she becomes increasingly distraught. In her grief, the narrator becomes unreliable, and it’s difficult for the reader to understand what, exactly, happened to Sarah and why the narrator has fallen so deeply into a state of helplessness.

Delabroy-Allard undoubtedly wishes to show two sides of the same coin – the heady rush of new love with the catastrophic consequences of its end. While her prose is consistently beautiful and fresh, the narrative dissonance of the latter half is perplexing. Because the narrative is comprised solely of the narrator’s fraught inner thoughts, the reader is privy only to a disjointed retelling of what occurred.  The novel’s ambiguous ending leaves the reader none the wiser as it leaves us in the nadir of the narrator’s dejection.

While They Say Sarah may not come together as a wholly cohesive unit, it presents us with a commanding new voice in fiction. Delabroy-Allard is undoubtedly possessed of a keen, poetic eye that functions at its best in descriptive, atmospheric prose. They Say Sarah is truly the introduction of an exciting new voice in fiction.

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