Book review: Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan

One working day, one commute, one city that crushes human beings and two troubled people whose paths are destined to cross.

Delphine de Vigan’s exquisitely wrought novel, Underground Time, captured the hearts and minds of thousands of French readers and was rightly shortlisted for the prestigious Goncourt Prize in 2009.

Now a superbly smooth translation by George Miller opens up de Vigan’s compelling contemplation of the potential and often very real brutality of 21st century city life to English-speaking readers.

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Set within a single day, two disparate and quietly desperate Parisians look out on their soulless and loveless urban world, pushed and shoved by pressures they cannot control.

Mathilde and Thibault are victims; marketing manager Mathilde is at the mercy, or lack of mercy, of a ruthless corporate machine that has the power to destroy lives and paramedic Thibault is a slave to the central control which dispatches him to the sick, the dying, the helpless and the hopeless.

Every day Mathilde takes the Metro, then the commuter train to the office of a large multinational company where she works in the marketing department.

She used to like the journey even though it’s the same routine and the same trains. She was happy to read and follow the unspoken rules of the Metro. At work, she was successful, popular and driven.

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But something happened a while ago – she dared to contradict her moody boss Jacques in a meeting and little by little she has found herself frozen out of everything, ostracised from her team and exiled to a back office where no-one is brave enough to speak to her.

Meanwhile, Thibault drives to the homes of the sick in a city that spares him no grief with its traffic jams and battles for elusive parking spaces.

He makes his rounds knowing he may be the only human contact many of his patients will have all week and the recent break-up with his girlfriend Lila has brought home to him the immense, pervading loneliness of the city.

As they crisscross Paris one day in early summer, both Mathilde and Thibault believe they are just two anonymous figures but a meeting between them seems almost inevitable, particularly as it was written in the stars.

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De Vigan’s elegant and eloquent prose conjures up an acute portrait of the relentless and mind-numbing routine of underground commuting in which travellers are reduced to ‘filthy insects, crawling beneath the earth, repeating the same actions day after day under the neon lights’.

Underground Time is also a damning condemnation of the devastating and far-reaching consequences of bullying, whether at home or at work.

An astute and finely observed tale of our times.

(Bloomsbury, paperback, £11.99)

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