An Accident in August by Laurence Cossé

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.

27 comments

  1. I share your wonderment at the reaction, but then I’m puzzled by films of Sinatra fans, Beatlemania, and sports figures’ salaries. Still the view from a French protagonist, and your allusion to the quirk in plot have me curious.

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one to remain bemused about all the fuss, Liz!! It certainly is an interesting read, and I liked the French perspective too – it’s not one I’ve read before.

    1. Yes, The Novel Bookstore intrigues me too, Claire – I read the blurb in the bookshop the other day and was tempted to purchase then and there which says a lot for me! This certainly would be one you’d enjoy I should think…

  2. I had mixed feelings about the character that gets introduced — it definitely did feel less real BUT it also made the book more, I don’t know, it introduced some character interaction into the thing. I didn’t like it when it was just Lou, all the time only Lou, thinking thoughts all the time and not doing anything or interacting with anyone. My mind yearned for her to play with other characters! It’s like having only one doll. :p

    1. Jenny you are too funny! I know what you mean about it being TOO much Lou…I suppose I just thought it made things a bit too sinister and took it away from the innocent paranoia thing…but musn’t say too much!!😉

  3. I do so agree about the mystery of the interest surrounding Diana – she courted the press and they absolutely loved the opportunity to photograph and report this pretty addition to our somewhat plain and dull royal family.

    It’s interesting that the French still seem fascinated by her. I regularly hear people expressing singular views about the death of Laydee Dee. And always, without fail, the person discussing her will say, ‘but she was so beautiful.’ As if that was all there was to her. Maybe that really was just about all there was.

    I’ll be looking out for this book. (Perhaps it’s already out in France. Must investigate). That’s a very cool, clear review you’ve given us. Head screwed on right, girl!

    1. Yes I just don’t get it – it still upsets me that her death was considered more important than Mother Teresa’s – a woman whose whole life was dedicated to serving others whereas Diana, while she did work hard to raise awareness of the plight of others, was a pampered Princess all the same. She didn’t have it bad, that’s for sure, and I always roll my eyes when people talk about how ‘tragic’ her life was – it wasn’t bloody tragic at all!

      It was published in French in 2003 I believe – under the title ‘Le nuit de 31 aout’ or something like that…look it up and check because that’s probably wrong. Thank you very much! Glad you enjoyed it!

  4. I don’t think I fancy this one (thank goodness! Far too many TBRs and not enough money…), but I just wanted to say that I, too, although an ardent anti-royalist, felt SO sorry for her sons. The wreath with ‘Mummy’ on it had me in tears.

    1. Phew, glad I haven’t got to carry the guilt of adding yet another book to your pile Penny!

      Oh I know, that’s what made me sad – leaving children who really needed a mother behind was the tragic aspect of it all. Though they bore it incredibly bravely and I have a lot of respect for both of them. Two upstanding men who have done their mother proud.

  5. Really wonderful review of a book that’s been getting some good buzz — I’m reminded a bit of…is it Monica Ali’s book that suggests Di didn’t die? It’s interesting she’s surfacing in our cultural consciousness right now.

    I wonder how the French reception to this novel — esp the character that’s introduced that you didn’t like — as I sometimes wonder if translations take away some of the nuances of the story. I’ve had friends who were digging Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore until the end so perhaps she just ends things differently than English readers want?

    1. Thanks Audra, glad you enjoyed it! Yes, it is – this year is the 10 year anniversary which is why there is so much buzz right now.

      That’s a very good point – perhaps it’s a cultural issue and my general cynicism doesn’t help! I’d love to hear from someone who’s read it in its original French and the English translation and can tell us if there are any differences that would affect the reading. Oh, if only I’d kept up my French!

      1. Ten years?! Wow — now I feel old. I moved in to college the day it was announced Di had passed away; it was all anyone talked about that morning. Very surreal to think of it as being so long ago!:/

  6. I would appreciate a chance to read this as I really enjoyed A Novel Bookstore and am more than a little curious about this choice of topic as it seems surprising for the author. And for me to be interested much like you.

    1. Well fingers crossed Frances – there’s only three contenders for the prize right now! I’m glad you enjoyed The Novel Bookstore – I’m definitely going to pick it up as Laurence Cosse is certainly an entertaining writer who comes up with some interesting plotlines!

  7. I’m quite surprised it has taken this long for someone to write a story around that white Fiat. Who knows, perhaps there is something else out there…anyway, it does sound interesting so I wouldn’t mind giving it a go! I know, I know…you’re thinking “but she hasn’t read O! Pioneers yet”. Well, I did pull it from the shelf recently but the first sentence sets things in January. It is way too hot to read about January at the moment so back it went…for now.

    Oh and I really enjoyed reading about your jaunt to the Cloisters and we’re off to indulge in some Pottermania tomorrow night with some friends. I’m in it for the Rickman!

    1. I had forgotten all about the white fiat…thought to be honest, the speed that car was going, I don’t think anyone else can really be blamed! Well Darlene, I won’t strike you off the list of people wanting my copy even though you have dared to leave Willa languishing on the TBR pile…excuses excuses!😉

      Ooooh have fun watching Harry! Be prepared to be on the edge of your seat and watch out for the best Maggie Smith line ever…though I can’t see her as anyone else other than the Dowager Countess of Grantham at the moment!!

  8. The book sounds fascinating even though I didn’t quite get the cult like adoration of Lady Di and other notables. I was a tiny person when Elvis first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on TV. The whole neighborhood was in to watch the event.(Not many television sets then.) A teen age girl from down the street screamed, cried, pulled her own hair, and melted to the floor. I decided right then that I would never behave like that. I just don’t get it. At most, I would probably be a little tongue tied at meeting a famous person that I admire, but that is it.
    That said, I would enjoy the mystery and I enjoyed your review.

    1. That’s so funny! My mum said she and her friends used to be like that when they went to concerts in the 70’s!

      Thanks Janet – it’s definitely an interesting read.

  9. I’m intrigued by this book, partly because it sounds somewhat similar to a book I read sometime ago: The Little White Car by Danuta de Rhodes. Now, Danuta de Rhodes is a nom de plume of Dan Rhodes, and I think it was supposed to be his tongue-in-cheek attempt at a fun, chick-lit style novel. Essentially, it’s a light and fluffy version of this story and, if you fancied a fun companion read to this book is well worth a look. It was one of my favourite holiday reads a couple of years back. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for Laurence Cosse’s take on the same event though, as it sounds fascinating and much darker!

    1. I haven’t heard of that, Beth! I’m going to check it out! If you liked that then I think you’ll definitely like this, even if it is a little more ‘serious’!

  10. I am surprised at the negative reaction to people’s grief at Diana’s death. I was both stunned and grieved at her death – not because she was so pretty, but because her life had always seemed so sad to me. It always seemed to me that she had made a terrible mistake at age 19 – 19! – but unlike most foolish 19-year-olds, was punished and humiliated publicly and cruelly for it. Her mother abandoned her, her husband lied to her, and cheated on her from the beginning and she had to grow up in the public eye, trying to figure out how to give her life meaning. I hoped she would eventually find a way to be happy – I think most people did – and it just seemed very tragic when she died. Mother Teresa, on the other hand, had a full, satisfying life, doing what she wanted most to do; she was wonderfully successful, and I am guessing that when she died, she died without regrets – a good death.

    But this book does sound rather silly. I think I would probably agree with everything you didn’t like about the plot and characters.

    1. I always forget how young Diana was when she married Charles. Poor girl – a lamb to the slaughter. I do see what you mean and I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective before – she personified the fact that life could be a series of disappointments despite the apparent glamour and wealth that surrounded it. I like what you said about Mother Teresa – and I suppose she wouldn’t have been interested in all the nice things people should have said about her anyway – she never did anything that she did do for the attention, after all.

      Thank you wise Mumsy! As always you have made me think about things in a different way!

  11. I’d love to read the book! I do not either understand the adoration that people have for the royal house. It’s the same here in Sweden. You can admire people that have acclompished something, but a princess? 80% of the Swedish people do not agree with me, I know, but I cannot for my life understand what they do that generates this admiration?

    1. It is frustrating, Pia…on the one hand I do admire the senior royals for doing their best at a role they never chose, especially the Queen, who has been an exemplary Head of State since she became Queen in her twenties and has never put a foot wrong, but I do hate the inequality of it all and the luxury they live in compared to the poverty of a lot of Britons. It just doesn’t sit well with me. But at least most of them do charity work and do their best to be good role models. They didn’t choose to be born royal, I suppose.

  12. I also have a strange fascination with Diana. I am not a Royal apologist by any stretch, but I was just starting uni when the accident occurred, and I remember feeling greatly impacted – and inexplicably very sad. As a small child, my mum had me up to watch the Royal wedding, I had Diana cut out dolls for gawd’s sake, I mean its crazy what a public figure she was. I suppose I was culturally brainwashed into caring about her. And yes, she courted that public attention but also suffered as a result of it. It is easy to dismiss, but what was all that public outpouring of grief about? I like to think of it in this way. Everyone has their struggles. She lived hers in a very public manner, but as an earlier poster said, that also meant that she struggled to find meaning in her life in a very public way. I like to think that this is what the public identified with and why we were all so sad when she died. Because she lived her very ordinary struggles: a bad marriage, an eating disorder, insecurities, the burning endless desire to find love, happiness, meaning etc. etc. – what the rest of us deal with privately – in a very public manner. And, of course, she was different than the other Royals. I think this is the most interesting thing to meditate on – I guess these themes may be covered in the movie The Queen somewhat. I haven’t seen it. Possibly there are other books about Diana that explore this. Still, perhaps I will add this book to my TBR, if for no other reason that because of my strange fascination with Diana!

    Btw, I just started a book blog. Happy to have comments or suggestions if you have any: thegirlybookclubblog.wordpress.com

    1. Hi Devon! Thank you for your input into the debate – I never thought about the Diana effect like that before and I can see exactly what you mean. Perhaps because I was so young I never viewed her in that light before. That’s certainly made me feel a lot more sympathetic towards her. She didn’t have an easy life, that’s for sure, and I am sorry she never found the happiness she was looking for. It was just so strange to me to see so many people so distraught when they had never even met her…but as you say, you don’t need to have met someone to identify with them. I hope you get around to reading the book and thank you for helping me to view Diana in a different light.

      Love the blog! I wish I was part of a book group!

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