One of the most challenging ethical dilemmas I’ve ever come across is two parents battling over custody of a child when both have near equal claims. Like The Light Between Oceans, The Confidant by Hélène Grémillon is the judgment of Solomon all over again. On the one hand, I think the person who gave birth to the child—barring abuse—has a right to parent that child. On the other hand, once the child has bonded with another person, is is right and fair to take the child away and give them to a stranger? The matter is even more complicated in The Confidant because Grémillon’s characters are wrestling with love and betrayal and war on top of their battle for protagonist Camille Werner’s loyalty.
A few days after her mother’s death in a car crash, Camille receives an unsigned letter. The letter and the ones that follow tell the tragic story of Annie. Louis, the letters’ author, had loved Annie since they were children. They might have grown up and married if not for the arrival of Monsieur and Madame M. in the small town of N. (Louis refrains from giving away details until much later.) Madame M. befriends Annie and, at first, the relationship seems to help Madame M. with her depression. Then, one day, a few months before the invasion of France, Annie and Madame M. disappears. When Annie resurfaces about three years later, she has a monstrous story to tell Louis.
The secret at the heart of The Confidant is that Madame M. is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to have a child. She and her husband have been married for six years and there’s no child in sight. Her friends’ encouragement has turned to pity. Madame M. has tried all sorts of pseudoscientific fertility treatments and they have all failed. When she meets Annie, Madame M. hatches a scheme, though she is subtle enough to arrange things so that it seems like Annie’s idea. The scheme is for Annie to bear Monsieur M.’s child and give it up to Madame M. But, like things usually do in fiction, it all gets terribly complicated.
By the end of The Confidant, we get both Annie and Madame M.’s version of events. We also see Camille wrestle with Louis’s revelations about her parentage. In less skilled hands, the book might have seem overstuffed with ideas or been lopsided and have one plot thread that was more interesting than another. Grémillon is deft with pacing and characterization. Nothing feels superfluous or out of place and I genuinely felt for Camille and the other characters. Like all good novels centered on impossible ethical dilemmas, there is no easy out for the characters and I was left with a probably impossible question about what would have been fair to ponder over. The Confidant is the kind of story I relish.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.