With a child narrator it is always a challenge to strike the right note, the right balance of insight and innocence, but when the child in question has a developmental disability it can be even more difficult to create a believable, engaging voice. Or, as in Dominique Fabre’s My Life as Edgar, it can be an opportunity to present the world through an unusually sensitive, yet unfiltered lens. As is clear from the opening sentences, Edgar has a clear sense of what it is that sets him apart from others, even if he and those around him are never really certain just how far apart that truly is:
I was a quiet, unassuming child, but I had features of a kid with Down syndrome—a kind of coldness around the eyes, pale lips, big cheeks, a big butt, though my chromosomes weren’t really to blame. I could hear people around me say He’s not all there, is he? in soft voices, secretively, only I had ears, phenomenal ears, Micky Mouse was deaf compared to me, nature didn’t do me any favors, except for my ears.
When we first meet Edgar it is 1964, he is three going on four and living in Paris with his single mother, Isabelle. Life is pleasant. They go to the park, she takes him to visit a psychiatrist he is fond of, and when she goes to work he stays at a day home. But things start to change when a married man comes into his mother’s life. Suddenly his small world becomes a little uncomfortably crowded, perhaps too crowded. Before long, Edgar is sent to live with a foster family in Savoy. He will remain there for the next seven years, his care paid for by monthly cheque. He will talk to his mother on the phone weekly, write her letters, carefully copying the examples his caregiver prepares for him, and, on occasion, she will come to visit. But in a sense, out in the country he has more attention, freedom, responsibility and companionship than he had at home in Paris. He is even allowed to go to school. With Auntie Gina and Uncle Jos, and the other kids of unwed mothers who pass through their home, he has a second family and freedoms that urban life would never have afforded a young boy who is “not all there.”
On the surface, Edgar’s story is simple, but his telling of that story is neither simple, nor direct. The first section, recounting life in Paris with his mother, has a certain charm. He understands more of what is going on around him—or at least he appears to—and reports his observations and responses with a clarity that belies his age. However, this is a relatively focused period of his life that he may well have replayed in his mind many times over the years that he lived apart from his mother, because, with the second and longest section, the tone changes. Unfolding as an internal monologue addressed to his psychiatrist, Madame Clarisse Georges, he confesses: “I’m still not all there, but I know how to hide it well. I’m grown up now. I’m still quiet and unassuming too, but I’m not sure that won’t change.” He is eleven—a good year for him, he says—it is the year he will return to the city. But he admits that the years before that were also good, and he wants to talk about them. So he sets out to “dive into the past without remembering much actually.” And, sometimes, remembering too much.
As one might expect, Edgar’s efforts to fill in the gaps in his memory leads to a narrative that can be rather disjointed. He reports what comes to mind, moving back and forth in time, from event to event, often unaware of the larger context of what he sees and hears. His foster mother is of Italian descent, while his stepfather apparently doesn’t like Italians “even though he married one and she’s not the first, but I only know that because I let my ears listen.” Uncle Jos is a man who has chosen Stalingrad over the Catholic Church and works for the local municipality:
[H]e has road workers from the Department of Roads and Ditches who are all the time filling the holes of the world so it won’t spill over on all sides. Sometimes at night he goes out in his underwear, wearing his Damart thermals, when the roads collapse and no one can get through.
His narrative is peppered with stock expressions seemingly incongruous with that of a young child, especially one who is supposedly “not all there.” He talks about his mother’s “dark and traumatized gaze” and accepts that he is the “village idiot.” He calls Italians Dagos and talks of cuckolds without understanding that the terms are being used in a derogatory fashion. His language absorbs and reflects the prejudices and politics of 1960s working class rural France.
As a narrator, Edgar has no filter. He tells what he remembers, the significant and the insignificant alike, from the quality of his bowel movements (especially after the weekly polenta dinner) to the excitement of the Revolution of 1968. What he reveals is often quite telling, even funny, but he his always very serious in his accounting. His is a monologue that invites one to read between the lines, revealing much about the society and the family units within which he exists. And his observations can be quite profound as when he describes his stepfather’s relationship with his adult son on a day when his own mother has come to visit:
They also fought about the Algerian war. I’d often heard the story since being here. Uncle Jos had tried to break Ricardo’s leg so he wouldn’t go back and help the French get killed over there in the colonies, but his leg had held up against the hammer blows, so Ricardo returned to Algeria covered in gauze and bandages. Since then, the two of them didn’t talk much. Me, if we had to go to war for independence, I think I’d go see Ricardo, not Uncle Jos. It feels weird, Madame Clarisse Georges, I’ll always know more about Uncle Jos and Auntie Gina than about Edgar and Isabelle, and all the rest. But today, in case you’re still alive and don’t mind listening to me, I’m like a separated Edgar, I’ve already lived a long time.
In the final section, Edgar, now eleven, returns to Paris and after a few weeks with his mother, is sent off to boarding school. He navigates the dynamics of this new environment for a while, but ultimately will try to take control of his life in a world which has repeatedly pushed him off to the sidelines.
Dominique Fabre is a writer who is interested of illuminating the lives of people on the margins. This is a brave little book that I suspect may have missed the mark with some readers who fail to connect with narrator. Edgar, for all his concerns about the gaps in his memory, is an endearing child trying to tell his own story as best he can. In the process, he unwittingly tells a much larger tale about the lives of children whose parents are unable, or unwilling, to care for them, the systems in which they find themselves—day homes, boarding schools and foster families—and the value of consistency and support, wherever one may find it.
My Life as Edgar by Dominique Fabre is translated from the French by Anna Lehmann.