Translated from French by Adriana Hunter
(New York: Other Press, 2020)
Written in poetic, gorgeously sparse prose, Pauline Delabroy-Allard’s debut novel, They Say Sarah, captures the intensity of two women’s violent and obsessive love affair. Structured in two parts, the novel first depicts the narrator’s whirlwind romance with Sarah, followed by its tragic aftermath. Through this two-fold exploration of the relationship, Delabroy-Allard exposes the ways in which point-of-view and identity define one’s reality, and the ways in which lovers sacrifice and reclaim agency within relationships.
The first half of the novel depicts the narrator’s obsessive romance with Sarah, a larger-than-life violinist. Written in short and concise chapters, the introduction to the characters’ romance is fast-paced, the structure of the novel mirroring the tempo of the relationship. Sarah is a force of nature, consuming everything around her. Sarah “gets very thirsty, drinks as if her life depends on it,” has “too much wine and too many cigarettes,” and “eats [the narrator’s] mouth like biting into a cherry” when they kiss. Her passion and hunger mirror her stormy moods, how “she screams” when “mad with fury.” While Sarah is depicted as fickle and obsessive, the narrator’s moods — though not as closely explored — often mirror Sarah’s. During one of their worst fights, the narrator leaves once Sarah is subdued and “howl[s] until [her] throat burns.” While Sarah’s whims and moods are at the core of the novel’s first half, the narrator’s perceptions of those moods subtly expose how she, too, is consumed by desire and rage.
This rage arises in part because the narrator feels as if she is a “puppet” to Sarah’s life and whims. The narrator repeats the phrases “she doesn’t know” and “she doesn’t realize” whenever she describes the impact Sarah has on her. In this way, the narrator’s feelings do not come directly through her, but rather place Sarah’s perception and experience at the center of her reality. As the relationship draws closer to an end, nearly every chapter begins with the word “she,” culminating in the declaration that “it’s all about Sarah.” Through this, the narrator seems to acknowledge her obsession with Sarah, and Delabroy-Allard highlights the ways in which the narrator intentionally sacrifices her agency, centering all things — good and bad — on Sarah’s choices rather than hers.
While the tumultuous and violently passionate love affair takes center-stage in the first part of the novel, the narrator’s unreliable perceptions of Sarah and their relationship become the focal point for the novel’s second half. After fleeing France to escape the reality of Sarah’s fight with cancer, the narrator’s musings become less reliable, as she works to repress her final moments with Sarah — the short chapters lengthen, and the scenes hold less substance. The narrator moves through repetitive motions, eating and drinking the same things, walking the same routes day after day, her mind (again) mirroring her actions, the stream-of-conscious narrative looping through her final moments with Sarah without ever revealing Sarah’s fate.
Ultimately, whether Sarah lives or dies will have little impact on the narrator. As she relives their last days together, again and again, her ramblings produce a link between Sarah’s death and the day Sarah said she was no longer in love — the narrator repeats “I know how it goes” as she recollects her final moments with Sarah. What the narrator “knows” becomes reality, reliable or not, and erases Sarah’s existence and experience in turn. Obviously, this is a sharp turn from the phrase repeated in the first section of the novel — “she doesn’t know” — which placed Sarah at the center of the narrator’s experiences. Now, the narrator regains full control of the story, (re)crafting reality — the cause of Sarah’s cancer, her possibility of survival — around her perception of their romantic relationship rather than the actual events that transpired. Whether Sarah survives does not matter. To the narrator, she stopped existing when she rejected her. In this way, Delabroy-Allard suggests — contrary to the narrator’s perspective in the first half of the novel — that it is Sarah who has been consumed, Sarah whose life and future determined by the narrator’s point-of-view.
The story of They Say Sarah feels familiar and contrived at times, an echo of an older yet prevalent exploration of sapphic love in literature. However, Delabroy-Allard’s mastery of craft sets the novel apart and ensures she is a rising voice to be watched. A stylistic triumph, They Say Sarah may not be a story to remember, but its poetic prose and rhythmic structure create an engaging read that will haunt readers long after its final pages.
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Briana McDonald’s fiction has appeared in The Stonecoast Review, Glassworks Magazine, The Cardiff Review, Rozyln: Short Fiction by Women Writers, and Marathon Literary Review. She is the author of the middle-grade novel, Pepper’s Rules for Secret Sleuthing.