Le Temps Des Cerises
Zillah Bethell brings events to life in a rollercoaster, almost caricature-like style, rather than a realistic reconstruction of history and hardship, although the details of the setting are keenly researched and acutely dramatised. Her protagonist is Eveline, a young woman longing for action, trapped searching for food for her young brother and alcoholic, maudlin father.
Eveline is engaged to the romantic, letter-writing Laurie, but is increasingly drawn to his friend, the fiery Alphonse, who is involved in intrigues to break the siege. In a beautifully depicted subplot, the nun Bernadine struggles to look after a baby, delivered dramatically and unexpectedly by her friend and fellow nun in the Paris convent, Sister Agnes. Bernadine’s own troubled past haunts her as she bids to save the baby from the horrors of Paris life and makes her own bid for escape as Eveline ‘mans’ the barricades.
Bizarre historical detail such as the theft of the army’s horses and the citizens’ use of men in hot air balloons to send for help, serve to intrigue and authenticate the story. Bethell’s vibrant prose and talent for dramatic imagination make this an evocative and highly enjoyable read.
<p>Set in a Paris under siege in the 1870s, Le Temps de Cerises is a slightly madcap tale of survival, following the lives of the downtrodden Parisians who wish to reclaim their city, warts and all. If you are expecting typical, run of the mill, historical fiction, then you will be sorely disappointed as, yes, this is an historically accurate account but it is peppered with such quirky, at times, grotesque characters that it stands out amongst its more staid, traditional, historical colleagues. Told in the third person, this account which culminates in the fall of the Paris Commune, includes a wide variety of characters. Our “heroine”, 17 year old Eveline Renan, is frustrated by her mundane home life, tending to the needs of her alcoholic father and cleaning up after her younger brother. Whist her father can lose himself in drink and her brother immerses himself in his quests to rule the skies in a hot air balloon, Eveline sees her only means of escape in taking up arms and joining the renegades. Her fiance, Laurie, is too much of a wimp for her liking, his poetic scrawlings failing to illuminate any spark of passion. Step forward Alphonse, the courageous, action-hero who is willing to face danger head-on. Meanwhile Monsieur Lafayette, a friend of Eveline’s father, has his own evil designs on Eveline and will stoop to any depths to take her as his wife. Alongside all the disruption of the city, the nun, Bernadine, has her own struggle, to feed and clothe the baby of her friend Sister Agnes who recently died in childbirth and her story will eventually intertwine with that of Eveline. Indeed it is Bernadine’s story which provides some calm and respite in the midst of the maelstrom of civil war. Le Temps de Cerises is not for the fainthearted, with its vigour, colour, whimsicality but through all the madness you can still feel the passion and fervour of the working class Parisians, striving for equality. A highly original, entertaining and educating tale. PS I only learned about the Paris Commune after a visit to Pere Lachaise cemetry in 1985 when I saw the Mur des Federes against which 147 supporters of the Commune were shot and thrown into a ditch and buried where they fell. Seeing the actual places where these historical events took place can have a lasting effect…</p>
Review from Planet
Historical fiction is a tricky beast: too much history and your characters stagger around under the burden of all academic research; too much fiction and the past looks like cheap wallpaper.
Bethell's characters (including a nun, a drunken stonecutter, hid beautiful daughter, a dashing revolutionary, his poetic friend) are a lively bunch, and the predominant feel of the book is, perhaps surprising, comic. She has a great knack of evoking experience through sensory details, especially food, which takes on immense significance during the awful hunger of the siege itself.
Mary-Ann Constantine, Planet 202