It is so important to be educated. Is it not? So much so that we – the ones who are educated almost take it for granted. A privilege of sorts. We can never imagine not being literate. To us, that is the core of everything, which as I said often gets overlooked for whatever reason. I tried teaching someone once a long time ago, taught him to read a little and to me that remains closest to my heart. It was not much but it mattered and reading “Bitter Almonds” by Laurence Cossé brought back all those memories all over again. The idea that a book can do that is sufficient enough for me to keep reading, to keep turning those pages, as I pick one great book after another and that is the power and hold that books and reading have on me.
“Bitter Almonds” to put it simply is a book where one woman teaches another how to read and write. Having said this, just as any other book that look deceptively simple, this one too has many layers to it, which will warm the cockles of your heart (so to say) as you get further into the narrative. The story is based in Paris and centered on two women – Edith and Fadila, her sixty-year-old housemaid (an immigrant from Morocco), who is completely illiterate.
Edith doesn’t understand how a person can be illiterate. She doesn’t get how Fadila must be undertaking the day to day activities of life without knowing how to read or write. Edith then takes it on herself to ensure Fadila is educated and in the right manner. It is not going to be an easy task for Edith and yet at the end of it all and during the lessons, there forms an unexplainable bond between the two women – like they have known each other for years and lifetimes across this one. The thought processes, the emotions, the lives merge and this how they find their friendship, which is both delightful and heartbreaking.
This is the kind of book that I had wanted to read for a very long time by Laurence Cossé, more so after reading, “A Novel Bookstore” which is not only unusual in its plot but also highly satisfying as a novel. Of course one cannot compare the two books; however, “Bitter Almonds” is in a league of its own. Cossé takes us into the hearts and minds of these women and lets us know what friendship and love is all about. She simply describes the world and the relationship of these two women in the book – the way it is – without boundaries and the time it takes for them to trust each other.
“Bitter Almonds” is written with great care and tenderness and maybe that is why it speaks to you the way it does. The translation by Alison Anderson is but of course superlative, given that I also loved her translation of “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery. It is very important that the translation speak to the reader with the same intensity that the original would, had I known how to read French.
The book spoke to me on many levels – of not being able to make sense of life when one doesn’t know how to read or write (and I shudder at the thought if I was ever illiterate), of maybe the need to help someone or change a person’s life (because I also think that we do not do that enough) and of the basic connection of the soul and heart beyond language and literacy.