This review appears on paperbackparis.com:
Philippe Djian’s latest novel explores the long-term effects of war in an unnamed rural town where soldiers returning from combat must deal with the psychological trauma of their experiences. Marlene, a domestic drama focused on the daily struggles of childhood friends Dan and Richard, chronicles the disruption to their lives when Richard’s sister-in-law comes to stay with them. Dan and Richard joined the military together, fought in Special Forces together, and returned to the same small town together, supporting each other, for better or worse, in their readjustment to civilian life. In an insidious, dread-inducing series of events, Marlene’s presence derails the tenuous grasp they have on sanity.
When the novel begins, Richard is about to finish a three-month stint in prison for driving under the influence. Richard’s wife, Nath, and his 18-year-old daughter, Mona, fight constantly as Mona struggles to deal with her father’s impulsive behavior and her mother’s affairs. She stays with Dan until Richard is released, but her hostility towards her parents mounts over the course of the novel resulting in a tragedy that Dan feels responsible for.
At the same time, Nath’s sister Marlene comes to stay with them. Her reputation for tumultuous relationships and promiscuity precedes her, and, though she tries, she finds it difficult to reset the course of her life. As Dan and Marlene begin a secret relationship, Richard becomes involved in increasingly dangerous scenarios that frighten those close to him; Mona rages; and Nath can’t get rid of an obsessed lover. Their relationships with each other morph and strain over time, leading to a classic setup of dramatic irony as the novel’s events careen towards catastrophe.
A veteran novelist, Djian deftly builds tension as the novel progresses to its violent end. His depiction of war-induced trauma in Marlene gives the centuries-old tale of the outsider-wreaking-havoc a contemporary twist. Unfortunately, the suspense Djian builds through multiple perspectives leads to a muddled narrative, especially as the chapters get longer. It becomes difficult at times to understand who is speaking, and some events occur with little explanation.
In just 200 pages, Marlene reads more like an accomplished and compelling bundle of sketches rather than a fully-fleshed novel. Djian’s experience as a writer makes the sketches cohesive. The end result is certainly worth reading, but it is difficult. Considering the subject matter, though, Djian likely wanted it to be so.