Branching out of my usual preferred reading choices, I agreed to review this translation of Laurence Cossé’s novel, which explores the repercussions of the accident that led to Princess Diana’s death, because I am vaguely fascinated by the cult of Princess Diana, or ‘Lady Di’, as the French call her. The very un-British outpouring of national grief after her death was somewhat disturbing to the then 11 year old me; what had she done that warranted such public displays of hysteria, I wondered? I have never understood what people found, and continue to find, so extraordinary about her, but I will forever be haunted by the images of those poor boys walking behind the mother who would never watch them grow up, eyes dry, faces set, already aware of their duty to remain dignified while the crowds around them collectively bawled in a grief that was not really theirs to share.
Laurence Cossé ‘s story is an interesting take on the intrigue and obsession that surrounded the days following Diana’s untimely death. She uses the flawed and vulnerable character of Lou, a 25 year old waitress living on the outskirts of Paris, as a vehicle to explore the power of the media to incite paranoia and fear in a world where no one is allowed to have secrets any more; very pertinent at the moment, with the furore surrounding the News of the World hacking scandal. On the night Diana died, Lou was driving back to her suburban apartment from a late shift at the Paris restaurant where she waitresses. Her route took her into the Pont d’Alma tunnel; she was driving along, keeping to the speed limit, when suddenly she was overtaken by a speeding black Mercedes, which clipped her in the process. To her horror, Lou sees the car slam into one of the pillars up ahead. Shocked and panicked, Lou ignores the French law that requires witnesses of road accidents to stop and render all possible assistance, and speeds out of the tunnel, desperate to get away from what she has seen.
When she arrives home, shaky and terrified of the consequences of what she has done, she is horrified to see that there is significant damage to her car. There will be evidence that she was there. However, in the morning, Lou manages to calm herself down; the likelihood that anyone took note of her car registration, and of anyone tracking down a few light fragments from a make of car that is incredibly popular throughout France are slim, after all. Having got rid of her boyfriend for the day, Lou turns on the radio, and then her nightmare begins; the accident she witnessed was not just any accident, but one that has killed the famous Lady Di. The cause of the accident? Possibly a slow moving car…Lou’s car. Investigations are ongoing; the culprits will be tracked down. Lou freezes in fear; maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but some day soon, they will find her.
Lou goes to get her car fixed, but that’s not the end of her nightmare; everywhere she goes, people are obsessing over the investigation and the theories behind the accident. Lou is glued to the newspapers, to the radio, to the television; have they found out who owned the little white Fiat that caused the Black Mercedes to swerve yet? As each day goes by, Lou becomes more and more paranoid, and more convinced that she will have to leave her old life behind. Desperate and fearful, she doesn’t bank on someone else discovering her secret, and when they do, Lou’s nightmares become reality…
Lou is a very interesting character; a loner, with a difficult relationship with her mother and a boyfriend she’s not entirely sure she wants, her dissatisfaction with her life made me wonder whether she had been waiting for an opportunity like the accident in order to have an excuse to run away and make a new life for herself. Her paranoia is quick to take hold, and she soon becomes unable to rationalise with herself. Already vulnerable, her involvement in the accident and the opportunity it presents to escape the life she is already unhappy with tips her over the edge. The power of the media to stir up rumours and fear was something that particularly interested me as a factor in Lou’s mental deterioration. With the papers obsessing over every minor detail and with no escape from the relentless coverage of the accident, Lou is blinded by her guilt wherever she goes. In our modern world, we cannot isolate ourselves, and there is nothing that the press cannot expose and lay out for public consumption. Lou is particularly terrified of having her photo taken and printed in the newspapers, publicly shamed and forever branded as the woman who killed Princess Diana; seen by everyone, everywhere, with no hope of anonymity again. Lou’s abhorrence of the press and its intrusion into her life is especially interesting when considering that really, it was the hounding of the press that massively contributed towards the accident in the first place, and Diana’s life was reported in the press down to the minutest detail; cameras followed her everywhere. Lou’s fear echoes, in a way, the feelings Diana must have had, and I found that an intriguing element of the plot.
However, about half way through, a character enters who legitimises Lou’s largely irrational fears and makes this novel no longer about paranoia and more about evading an actual crime, and I found this confusing. While, as an entity, it’s a good, well written and interesting novel with a unique spin on a hugely culturally significant event of our recent times, I personally would have preferred it if Laurence Cosse had not introduced the character she does introduce and left the novel as a portrait of a paranoid woman and the lengths her fear would take her to in order to escape the terrible fate she kept imagining for herself. As it is, it becomes a tad unbelievable, and I was disappointed that it didn’t deliver what it had promised at the beginning, even though the twist near the end is fantastic and wraps things up very nicely. Despite my small misgivings, An Accident in August is definitely worth a read, and is especially interesting for its commentary on the ever increasing role of the media in our lives. It will be published by the brilliant Europa in August, and I have a scruffy galley copy I’d love to pass on to anyone who is interested – let me know in the comments if you’d like it.