Waiting for Tomorrow
by Nathacha Appanah
translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan
Graywolf Press, 2018
Nathacha Appanah's elegant and quietly memorable 2015 novella En attendant demain now receives an English-language translation as Waiting for Tomorrow by Geoffrey Strachan for Graywolf Press, and Strachan's very much to be commended for the job he does capturing the near-uncapturable fluidity of Appanah's prose line, the way the colors of this author's imagery are constantly shifting like sunlight on water.
The story here begins with two awkward outsiders meeting cute at a noisy party in Paris. Adam is a tall, lean young architect who constantly feels out of step with everybody around him, “He is not outgoing, flamboyant, ambitious enough,” we're told. “His stature is an illusion. He is much too old-fashioned, too shy.” At a party he meets Anita, an immigrant from the island of Mauritius, a small, “petite” aspiring writer who's far more comfortable inside her own head than dealing with the superficialities of strangers. “Nothing escapes her, so strong is her desire to be of the here and now,” we're told. “She reads, she absorbs, she observes.” The two are make an odd but convincing couple, and Appanah renders the joys and setbacks of their early relationship in a series of scenes of marvelous economy. When Anita seeks a stringer position with a daily newspaper early on, the paper's editor pompously tells her that to be a stringer is to know the region, “To go out and meet people. To take the pulse of the countryside, eat pork for breakfast and drink wine at ten in the morning.” From which we move straight to a later scene that without any fuss makes us begin to treasure our two main characters:
That evening, standing on a chair in front of Adam, with a rug draped around her like a toga, Anita had declaimed:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears
To be a stringer is to know the region
To be a stringer is to take the pulse of the countryside
Monsieur Voubert, my friends, tells us to eat pork for breakfast and drink wine in the morning.
Adam had laughed until the tears came to his eyes.
The two have a daughter and move to a small village in southwestern France. They suffer the kind of family heartaches and ambition-adjustments common to all young couples, and Appanah again delivers both the passage of time and the slow incremental creep of personal inertia in amazingly few pages. Adam and Anita hire a woman named Adèle to care for their child, and the addition of this stranger to their settled routine causes both predictable and unpredictable unheavals, as well as opening up the narrative to an infusion of new imagery:
She does not remember faces but she recognizes the look of things, habits, sounds, smells, gestures: the blue smoke from a cigarette being shared by the young people gathered at the back of the bush shelter, the sound of tapping on a packet of Tic Tac mints held in the palm (a rhythm of maracas), a ring finger applying balm to the lips, the cotton print skirts of women from Senegal, the brand names plastered across T-shirts, the white tracksuits, the black pants made shiny by frequent ironing, the Nigerian women's brightly colored scarves, the Jamaican caps, the electric-blue mascara, the eyeliner in the style of the singer, Barara, the sandalwood-based beauty masks of the women from the Comoro Islands, the tsiit, tsiit, tsiit of the personal stereos, the slim-line dance shoes, the cork platform shoes, the sneakers with huge tongues.
This being a novel, of course Adèle has mysteries of her own, and in short order her interactions with Adam and Anita and especially their daughter are threatening to tear apart all the settled mundanities our two main characters had previously never thought to cherish. The reader's patience for this variation on The-Nanny-As-Catalyst will vary depending on how badly they've seen it abused, but Appanah uses it in these pages about as adroitly as quasi-realistic fiction allows, and the book's second act complications produce a genuine page-turning tension that almost feels out of place in a book filled with such lovely language and down-to-earth realities. Waiting for Tomorrow is even smarter and surer than Appanah's earlier novel The Last Brother – a standout in the lists of English-translated literary fiction.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.