Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan

Title: Underground Time

Author: Delphine de Vigan 

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Underground Time is a difficult book to read. I found myself setting it down, time and time again, telling myself I wouldn’t pick it back up because there was enough depression in life without needing to read about it in a book too. When I did, inevitably, pick it up, I found myself reciting, “It’s just a book, it’s just a book, it’s not real life, don’t let it get to you, their story isn’t your own,” over and over again. Delphine de Vigan, however, makes her character’s stories my own; makes their pain so palpable and sharp that it aches my heart. And, after finishing this book, it is all I can do to not bury myself under the covers and lay there, warm and satisfied, unwilling to face the harsh realities of life. I owe it to this book and these characters, which have become so real to me, to persevere on, at least for a little while more.

What makes de Vigan such a brilliant author is her prose. Even in the first novel I read of hers, No and Me, I was blown away by the subtle beauty of her writing, the manner in which her phrases were thought-provoking and contemplative, all while retaining an ethereal loveliness about them. Thus, when I heard that de Vigan had written just one other adult book that had been translated into English, I rushed to my library to make them order it, just for me. Underground Time, though, is far different than No and Me was. Where her young adult story is a coming of age story full of silver linings despite the fact that it acknowledges that certain aspects of life simply cannot be changed, Underground Time is a story of two depressed adults for whom life has simply pressed down upon, much like the sky pressed down upon Atlas, the Titan.

Underground Time charts the story of Mathilde, a single mother of three children who is the victim of corporate bullying. After gently disagreeing with a minor point her boss made, Mathilde has found herself slowly spiraling away from all she loved about her job. Over the past eight months, her boss finds every reason to criticize her and turn her co-workers against her, all while lying about receiving important documents until, finally, on May 20th, Mathilde is replaced. Thibault, who shares the dual third-person narration in this story, is a doctor who is caught in a relationship of unrequited love. Finally, he finds it within himself to end his relationship for giving love and receiving none in return is every bit as painful as it sounds. Underground Time is a story that takes place over one day, filled with contemplation, longing, and flashbacks, detailing the joint story of Thibault and Mathilde, strangers who don’t know each other, but whose lives contain similar threads of depression and loneliness.

Underground Time takes place over the span of just one day, which is why it tends to drag a little after the half-way point, Mathilde and Thibault having the same depressing thoughts, only expressing them in a slightly different manner. Yet, despite this, the novel is surprisingly readable. Mathilde and Thibault both have their own individual voices which only complement each other. Although both our main characters do not know one another, it is evident from their narration that they should know each other for both of them want similar things from life. For me, the story of Mathilde and her heart-wrenching corporate discrimination seemed to be the overarching story arc that the tale of Thibault only enhanced. As a doctor, Thibault travels the city of Paris, meeting dozens of people with their own problems and depressions.

In many ways, Underground Time is equally a story of the city as it is of Mathilde and Thibault. It seems as if everyone in the city, despite being so occupied with their own lives, are eventually going to reach that point of exhaustion in their life, in some way or the other. With Thibault, we can see so clearly the multi-faceted side to this city, one teeming with life and death in equal parts. Furthermore, an advantage of having the narration of Thibault told side-by-side with that of Mathilde is that we can see so clearly the cruel game that fate plays with them both.

As with any dual narration, one always expects the characters to meet and while that standard is no different with this novel, it is a patient process. It seems as if, many times, Thibault and Mathilde are just about to meet one another, purely by coincidence, when, at the last instant, they just miss one another. Underground Time, unlike what I expected when I cracked open the spine of this novel, is not a romance. Instead, it is a story of two people who are forced to make tough decisions in their life, whether it is ending a relationship that isn’t working out or coming to the end of an unhappy time in an office building. Yet, what I love about this is that these actions are neither good nor bad decisions. Instead, they are inevitable. At times, life backs us into a corner where we have no choice but one left before us. Furthermore, this is a story not of the hope of a new and better life, but rather of the forlorn and hopeless period in-between; before one feels that life can better, they must first feel as if it cannot.

All in all, Underground Time is a novel that I know many of my friends will enjoy but it is, in equal parts, a novel I know many of my friends will despise. It is achingly real, to the point where one is compelled only to read stories of happiness afterwards, but it’s worth it. Delphine de Vigan has, yet again, managed to write a novel that is unique, thought-provoking, and shockingly realistic. While I do believe the ending is conclusive enough, I know many readers who have felt otherwise for, truly, it is open and ambiguous like few things in this world are. Yet, I found it was the perfect ending, both for this novel and its characters. It was fitting, in a way only life, which continues to go on despite everything it throws at is, manages to be. 


  1. I've somehow managed to survive No and Me, and although I appreciate and value the experience, I have no desire whatsoever to try something similar again. You are far braver than I am, and even you had to force yourself not to give up on this one. I sound like a broken record, but even though I'm fully aware that this is an excellent novel (I do, after all, trust your judgement completely), I find that I cringe just by thinking about it. I'm all about the escapism, and schockingly realistic reads simply hold no appeal for me. Not after 5 years of studying literature and reading anything and everythign they threw at me.
    This is such a wonderful, heartfelt review, my dear. You never cease to amaze me.

  2. Oooo I haven't heard of this one before Keertana! I can tell already that I'm going to be furious on Mathilde's behalf, I had a particularly awful boss my first job out of college who did everything in his power to make me feel small, so I can completely relate to what Mathilde goes through. I'm worried this might be too much of a downer for me though, I know you said the ending is open, but would you say there's at least some hope that things are going to get better? I need a tiny silver lining at least:)

  3. In the beginning of reading your review I was thinking this was an obvious romance when two people with problems would come together. That idea is shattered to know that they just pass by without ever speaking. I would find that incredibly difficult when you say the tow persona are so equally alike with their depression and life. This seems like a very intriguing novel, I have read anything by her but I've have seen it quite popular at my work! I will try her out! Lovely Review, Keertana

  4. This is a brilliant review! I only recently discovered this author because of all the praise for No and Me. I didn't realise she had another book available too. I can already feel myself hesitating a little though - I really don't have the courage or strength to put myself through something like this, though you do make me want to try. I'm glad that you found it very readable, despite the tone. Great review, Keertana!

  5. It's so funny and coincidental that you're reviewing this, Keertana, because I had a conversation with Flannery about this same novel! She told us about an utterly depressing story that she just read, and still loved in spite of that. We were at a book convention together and while she described this story I was thinking there's no way I could read it and not want to hid away in my covers for a week or two. Excellent and lovely review as usual! :)

  6. I'm so happy someone else has read this. I read it back in December for a new feature we're doing (just put it up today), but your review is so much lovelier than I could ever put together. When I describe the book to people I say things like, "It was just so utterly soul depleting," and even when I think about the defender card, it makes me want to cry.

    I have been having a hard time figuring out who among our reader friends would love this. I know Catie would like it but beyond that, I'm stumped. I'm glad I at least have you to love it with me:)

  7. Okay, this book sounds utterly depressing. I don't know if I can do it. I definitely want to read No and Me and I have already prepared myself for that one, but this one sounds almost WORSE. I have a really tough time with books like this. In order for me to push through I have to really want to read it. I don't know if I can do it with this one. That said, your review was gorgeously written and I am jealous of YOUR prose. :D

  8. Oh Keertana, this is the kind of novel for which a review (particularly yours) just makes me want to hide under the covers for a while. I'm so afraid of all the feelings! It does sound quite depressing, but I also love that those connections between the characters are almost but not quite there and that it isn't a romance. Beautiful review, though I think I'm afraid of this book. :P

  9. What a beautiful review for this book! Between this review and Flannery's, I'm tempted to put this on my e-reader with the full knowledge that I won't be brave enough to actually tackle it anytime soon. One day I'm sure I'll summon the courage required. More likely I'll just be in the right sort of mood for this kind of novel. But it sounds worth it!

  10. Oh I just read a review Flan posted for this and her review definitely had me intrigued, but your review has that affect on me that makes me want to pick up this book right away! I've read a few bleak books lately and whenever I'm in the mood for one next time, this will be the first one that I will be going to. I love how you described just how this book affected you, love love love this review Keertana <3! :)

  11. Ah, depression. You know a book is really getting to you when you have to tell yourself over and over again that it's not YOUR reality. I've had that case a few times, and honestly, it makes me excited that you felt the emotion so much with this book. However, I think I may not really like this one, because of the heaviness and the fact that it seems pretty slow. I think I'm going to have to wait for a few more reviews to see if this book is really for me. But I'm glad that this was able to touch you in the best way possible Keertana. Fabulous review as always! <3

  12. You seem to be reading a lot of emotionally depressing/traumatic stories of late, dear.

    However as always you manage to make them sound enthralling and stunning. I think I'll hold back on the reading.

    Still, after you seem to have enjoyed TWO of the novels by this author equally the name has now cemented in my head and I believe I shall have to try and read one of the two.

    Maybe the YA one.

    Brilliant review, dearest! :)

  13. Oh man, I totally get what you mean! It's so hard to read about depressing or tough subjects no matter how many times we tell ourselves it's just a book. But so often these books end up incredible so they're worth trudging through.
    I hadn't heard of this one yet so thanks for the heads up and wonderful review!


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