Soon after Frances, the young heroine of Daisy Lafarge’s debut novel, arrives at Noa Noa, an organic farm in southern France, she is put to work by the charismatic owner, Paul, pulling up the liana creepers that are suffocating the vegetables: “‘Les étrangleurs,’ says Paul with a grimace as he yanks up a vine, festooned with white, trumpet-shaped flowers. ‘They colonise everything.’”
In Paul (Granta Books), Lafarge has produced a nuanced and readable novel about attraction, power, and toxic relationships among the interwoven spheres of colonialism and gender relations. Frances is a young British woman who has taken time off from her academic work in Paris — and a complex sexual relationship with her supervisor — in order to volunteer on organic farms in exchange for food and board. When she reaches the farm, she finds herself attracted to Paul, an older man who seems keen to exchange her admiration for his protection. He tells her about his past and particularly about his travels in Tahiti, where he believes he found a culture of “richness” and “vitality” that has been lost in the West. It quickly becomes clear that Paul’s “expertise” is limited to anecdotal information about male Tahitian traditions; he looks “blank” when Frances asks about Tahitian women.
In her acknowledgements page, Lafarge explains that her novel draws on “names, place names and anecdotes” from Noa Noa: The Tahitian Journal by Paul Gaugin, first published in 1901. This autobiographical journal was Gaugin’s attempt to rewrite his own narrative, hiding the fact that he went to Tahiti after abusing his wife and failing to support himself or his family through his painting. With his life and career in crisis in 1891, Gaugin sold his benefactors a dream of the island as a sexually liberated, primitive place where the Indigenous population lived without the artificial sociocultural limitations of the Western world. In truth, however, Tahiti was an established French colony and therefore far from the untouched, uncivilized paradise Gaugin pretended it was.
When he was eventually forced to return to France due to lack of funds, he discovered the paintings he had sent in advance hadn’t received the critical acclaim he expected; his Tahitian adventure seemed dead in the water. In a last-ditch attempt to stir up some interest in his “exotic” travels, he wrote and published his Noa Noa journals (1901), in which he presented an embellished and often fictitious account of his artistic and erotic experiences in Tahiti. In recent years, scholars and art historians have paid attention to Gaugin’s exploitative relationships with local Tahitians. During his time there, he married three adolescent girls, the youngest only 13 years old. He impregnated two of his “wives” and gave all three of them syphilis.
Lafarge’s novel sets up the middle-aged, enigmatic photographer Paul as a parallel to Gaugin, teasing out the ways in which sexist and colonialist behaviors are so often intertwined. Sounding like a man every young woman has once met at a party, Paul declares: “I am a photographer, I am a traveller — but I think, at the heart of it, I would say I am a discoverer.” From an external perspective, Paul is a pretty repulsive character; there is something transparently off about him. Lafarge’s skill as a novelist is to maintain a realistic and deeply relatable sense of why Frances remains under his spell. Even though she is made uneasy by his attitude or his work, the confidence and authority of his masculinity and his age repeatedly disarm her, and she begins to doubt herself instead of him.
One of Paul’s photographs shows “a girl, of around five or six, naked from the waist up.” Frances silently wonders who, if anyone, gave permission for Paul to take the photograph. When Paul claims such work is important because it “opens people’s eyes,” she settles her fears in equal silence: “Of course, I think. Of course Paul has thought about all these things and found, somehow, a way to resolve them. […] I feel the knots of doubt begin to uncoil from my body, and an urge for Paul to take me by the hand and show me the way through.”
Throughout the novel, Frances expresses a desire to be a child again and to cede responsibility to others. She is both attracted to and repelled by the older men who appear to offer her this opportunity by taking charge of her life. Frances seems to be most alive when she interacts with little girls, often feeling more affinity with them than with the girls’ parents (all of whom are friends of Paul and therefore ostensibly her peers). At one point she dances with two small girls: “There’s something safe about it, as if by dancing with them I become one of them — a child of whom no one expects anything. It is so tiring having a woman’s body. I’d like to slip right out of it and shrink back down to a child’s size.” Ironically, however, she attempts to escape her woman’s body by seeking the protection of an older man who fetishizes her physique for its childlike appearance. Frances is stuck inside her own flesh, which is made a prison by a society and individuals who objectify women and girls and claim ownership over their bodies.
In Paul, Lafarge delicately unpacks the power plays and mind games of a toxic relationship, with an emphasis on society’s — and art’s — silencing of women. At one point, Frances finds herself literally unable to speak, a trait Paul finds endearing when they are alone together and embarrassing when he tries to introduce her to his friends. His paradoxical double standards echo the societal rules that both baffle and oppress Frances.
She is finally shaken out of her silent acquiescence by a shocking Gaugin-esque revelation about Paul’s behavior in Tahiti; suddenly, the man who has loomed so large in her life looks “so small: a clump of cells.” His sexist, colonialist mindset now makes him pathetic, and Frances is able to free herself at last. In Paul, Lafarge has written a beautifully balanced novel that shines an uncomfortable spotlight on all-too-common gendered behaviors and the sociocultural contexts in which such behaviors are both permitted and encouraged.
Paul by Daisy Lafarge (2021) is published by Granta Books and is available online and in bookstores.
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