Narrated by a fifteen-year-old girl with a ruthless regard for truth, The Last Life is a beautifully told novel of lies and ghosts, love and honor. Set in colonial Algeria, and in the south of France and New England, it is the tale of the LaBasse family, whose quiet integrity is shattered by the shots from a grandfather's rifle. As their world suddenly begins to crumble, long-hidden shame emerges: a son abandoned by the family before he was even born, a mother whose identity is not what she has claimed, a father whose act of defiance brings Hotel Bellevue--the family business--to its knees. Messud skillfully and inexorably describes how the stories we tell ourselves, and the lies to which we cling, can turn on us in a moment.
About the Author
Claire Messud was born in the United States in 1966. She was educated at Yale and Cambridge. Her novels include When the World Was Steady, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1996, and The Last Life, which was widely praised and has been translated into several languages.
Hometown:Somerville, MA, USA
Place of Birth:Greenwich, CT, USA
Education:BA in Comparative Literature, Yale University, 1987, MA in English Literature, Jesus College, Cambridge University, 1989
Read an Excerpt
I am American now, but this wasn't always so.
I've been here a long timesix years at Columbia alone, and what seems an age before thatand have built a fine simulacrum of real life. But in truth, until now I've lived, largely, inside. These small rooms on New York City's Upper West Side are my haven: an ill-lit huddle of books and objects, a vague scent that is home. I've been waiting, although I could not, until he appeared, have given earthly shape to what I waited for. "By pining, we are already there; we have already cast our hope, like an anchor, on that coast. I sing of somewhere else, not of here: for I sing with my heart, not my flesh."
I'm not American by default. It's a choice. But it is a mask. Who, in the thronged avenues of Manhattan, hasn't known this? It is the same, for the Korean saleswoman or the Bangladeshi businessman or the Nigerian student, for the Iowan nurse and the Montanan secretary, as it is for me: Americanness draws a veil, it lends a carapace to the lives we hold within.
Wherever we have come from, there ceased to be room, or words, or air; only here is breathing possible. The guilt does not evaporate: I livehow can I not?with my burden of Original Sin. But in America, at least, where the future is all that binds us, I can seem familiar, new. And for a long time, seeming sufficed.
Now I find myself wanting to translate the world inside, beginning with the home that was once mine, on France's southern coast; with the fragrances and echoes of my grandfather's BellevueHotel, perched above the vast Mediterranean in its shifting palette of greens and blues and greys; and, as a starting place, with the high season of 1989.
The beginning, as I take it, was the summer night of my fifteenth year when my grandfather shot at me. In this way every story is made up, its shape imposed: the beginning was not really then, any more than was the day of my brother's birth, or, indeed, of mine. Nor is it strictly true that my grandfather shot at me: I was not, by chance, in the line of fire; he did not know that I was there. But it was an event, the first in my memory, after which nothing was the same again.
Those summer evenings were all alike. As Marie-José used to say, we had to make the time pass. Of its own accord, it didn't, or wouldn't: the days lingered like overripe fruit, soft and heavily scented, melting into the glaucous dusk. We gathered by the hotel pool, on the clifftop, after supper, watching the sky falter into Prussian blue, to blue-black, and the moon rise over the Mediterranean, the sea spread out before us, whispering and wrinkled. Every night the white, illuminated bulk of the island ferry ploughed its furrow across the water and receded to the horizon, the only marker of another day's passage.
Still almost children, we scorned the games of tag and cops and robbers that the younger kids delighted in, spiralling their pursuits outwards from the round benches by the parking lot to the furthest foliated corners of the grounds. Instead we idled, and smoked, and talked, and were so bored we made a virtue of being bored. And we flirtedalthough most of us had known each other for years, and had spent each summer swimming and playing together, for so long that we knew each other's skin and laughter and illusions like our own, we flirted. It made the time pass.
I can't recall now whose idea it was first, to swim at night. We spent our days in the water, in the murky, boat-bobbed brine of the bay, or in the electric indigo of the swimming pool, its surface skimmed with oily iridescence. We lived in our bathing suits, tiny triangles of color, and worked (it was the closest that we came to work) on bronzing our skin evenly, deeply, so it held its tinge even through the winter months. We filed from beach to pool to beach again, up and down the tortuous paths, past the aloes in which, in earlier years, we had carved our initials, careful scars in the prickled, rubbery flesh. Why we felt the need to swim again, I do not know: perhaps because our water games were still those we had always played, a sphere into which self-consciousness had not yet intruded. We tussled in pairs on the pool's rim, struggling to push each other in, jumped from the overhanging balustrade into the shallows (although this maneuver had been strictly forbidden since a guest had cracked his skull attempting it), flaunted our elegant leaps from the diving board and, squealing, chased each other the length of the pool, the prize a firm shove on the top of the head and a spluttering sinkage.
Our games echoed in the trees. The higher our pitch the more we felt we enjoyed ourselves. In the daytime, the adult guests lounged in disgust by the water's edge, cursing our explosions and the rain of chlorinated droplets that they scattered; or else, stoic and frowning, they forged a measured breaststroke through our midst, their wake immediately swallowed by our flapping arms and legs. But at night the pool, lit from below, wavered, empty, avoided by the grown-ups who wandered through the distant hotel bar or dawdled, debating, over endless suppers, their voices rising and falling in the cicada-chorused air. The nearest thing to swimmers were the swooping bats that shot along the waterline in search of insects, attracted by the light.
And so, around ten o'clock one evening in July, or possibly even later, Thierrythe son of the accountant, a boy who never seemed to grow and whose voice obstinately refused to change, who compensated for his size with awkward arrogance and tedious prankssuggested that we chase away the bats and reclaim the shimmering depths for ourselves. Familiar in the sunlight, the pool in the dark was an adventure, all shadows around it altered. We had no towels and, beneath our clothes, no suits, so we stripped naked, our curves and crevices hidden by the night, and plunged in.
We were a group of eight or nine, the children for whom the hotel was home and those for whom it was each summer the equivalent. Our gropings and sinkings and splashings were more exciting for our nakedness, our screams correspondingly more shrill. We didn't think of the adults: why would we? We didn't even think of time. The night swim was a delicious discovery, even though our heads and arms, when protruding to the air, were cold, and our bodies riddled with goose bumps. Ten minutes, maybe twenty. We weren't long in the water, and it is still difficult to believe we were so very loud, when my grandfather emerged onto his balcony, a dark form against the living room lights, with the bulge of the plane tree like a paleolithic monster yapping at his feet.
He declaimed, his voice hoarse and furious. People were trying to think, to sleep. This was a place of rest, and the hour unconscionable ... In short, we had no right to swim. We dangled, treading water, cowed into silence for a moment until someoneThierry, no doubtbegan to hiss across to me, half-laughing, inaudible to my grandfather, about how the old prick should be silenced.
"Tell him you're here," he whispered. "Just tell him you're here and that'll shut him up. Go on. Or else he'll blabber on all night. Go on!"
OthersMarie-José and Thibaud and Cécile and the resttook up his exhortation: "Go on, Sagesse, go on." Their voices lapped like waves that my grandfather, slightly deaf and still ranting, could not distinguish.
"Grand-père," I shouted, finally, my voice high as a bell. "It's us. It's me. We're sorry. We didn't mean to disturb you."
"Get out right now," he yelled back. "Get out, get dressed and go home. It's the middle of the night." Everyone sniggered at this: we believed that people who went to bed, who got up in the morning and went to work, were some kind of a joke. "Does your father know you're here?"
"Yes, Grand-père, he knows."
My grandfather snorted, disgusted, a theatrical snort. "Go home, all of you," he said, and turned, fading back into the light, regaining his features and the high, greyed dome of his forehead.
We scrambled from the pool, a dripping huddle, muttering.
"Your grandfather, man," said Thierry, jumping up and down with his hands clasped over the shadow of his genitals. "He's something else."
"It's not Sagesse's fault," said Marie-José, putting a damp arm around me. "But he is, you know, a jerk."
"He's a bastard to work for, my father says," said a skinny girl called Francine, her teeth chattering. Her father was the head groundsman.
"My father says the same," I said. Everyone laughed, and just then a bat nose-dived and almost clipped the tops of our heads. We screamed in unison, and tittered guiltily at our screaming.
"Be careful," said Thibaud, one of the summer residents, the son of nouveaux riches from Paris and the boy I had my eye on. "Or he'll come back out." He growled. "Rottweiler."
We dissolved again.
What People are Saying About This
"A phenomenally controlled tour de force . . . Every step feels stunningly sure. –Vogue
"Haunting and evocative . . . Messud's is a novel rich in detail and warmly conveyed. . . . In its beautiful last pages, connections become crystalline, showing how we are linked in ways far deeper than religion, nationality or even blood-lines can delineate."-San Francisco Chronicle
"Remarkable . . . Messud has written a very serious book-always original, intense, and gripping."-The New York Review of Books
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The writing styke was really distracting for me. Almost every sentence gad five, six, seven commas and a hyphen or two. Made it hard to focus on story.
I thought the book was OK until I read what she did to a family member. It was so terrible, so disturbing, it ruined the book for me. I still get a bad taste in my mouth when I think of this novel.
The Last Life was movingly written; not happy, but affecting. The last third of the book was the best, as the protagonist reflects on what has happened and the personalities and motivations of family members driving the story's action. For me as a young middle-aged adult, the book raised a lot of interesting -- sometimes painful, but also hopeful -- questions about identity, choice, 'starting fresh,' and many other issues. Sagesse, the narrator, did a beautiful job of communicating the (often frustrated) desire to have others 'do what they say they're going to do, and be whole.' I was also struck by the truths, which many of us in our independence-minded society are loathe to admit, that 'freedom is a terrible thing...,' that 'we long to be sentenced,' and that 'our constrictions define us.' Lots of food for thought and feeling here.