Home invasion—by the book

Laurent Mauvignier's novel turns a simple horror-film scenario into a thorough examination of fear in the modern age
January 25, 2023
The Birthday Party
Laurent Mauvignier translated by Daniel Levin Becker (RRP: £16.99)
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In a remote hamlet in France, farmer Patrice, his wife Marion, daughter Ida and elderly neighbour Christine are preparing to celebrate Marion’s 40th birthday. Their plans start to unravel. Threatening letters arrive. Nefarious strangers turn up. A dog is killed. Things escalate into what can only be described as the worst birthday party in the world.

Mauvignier’s literary thriller began life as a screenplay for a home invasion movie; yet, without sound effects and clever camera angles to rely on, the sentence alone is tasked with conveying rising panic or sudden movement. Fortunately, this is where Mauvignier excels. His tightly controlled phrases expand and contract to the plot’s twists and turns, making for compulsive reading. The question nevertheless remains: when film does shock and suspense so well, what does a “home invasion novel” bring to the table?

One answer can be found in the book’s central theme. Fear is the basic economy of the thriller genre—its content and desired effect—but a 120-minute screenplay would struggle to match Mauvignier’s 500-page dissection of what fear is and how it behaves. It is represented as a sensory response to unfolding events, one that shapes the perception of time and environment, but also as a collective, intergenerational phenomenon that forges mindsets and political beliefs in this impoverished corner of rural France.

The Birthday Party joins a growing body of writing about a France “left behind”—but, here, the decommissioned factories and rising suicide rates among agricultural workers remain in the background. The novel focuses instead on what that socio-political reality feels like: there’s something closing in, with no obvious means of escape.