The Son
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The Son

Michel Rostain

We first meet Michel eleven days after the death of his son Lion. Lion was lost, suddenly, to a virulent strain of meningitis and it’s left his father and entire family reeling.

We join Michel on his personal journey through grief, but the twist that makes the journey truly remarkable, and tips this true story into fiction, is the fact that we see it all through Lion’s eyes.

In a stunningly original blurring of memoir and fiction, The Son tackles the very hardest of subjects in the most readable of ways. Michel Rostain resolutely ducks away from sentimentality and pathos, and tells his story instead with wit, wisdom and vitality. For this is not a book about death; it’s a book about life.


Filmmaker Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012) offers viewers an unflinching look at death, or rather the less-talked-about aspects of dying. Chronicling the final days of an elderly woman being cared for by her husband in their Parisian apartment, Amour has an honesty and compassion that devastates its viewers. It is a film that everyone should watch, but for many might be unwatchable.

A far more accessible meditation on grief is Michel Rostain’s novel The Son, winner of France’s Prix Goncourt Debut Novel award. Rostain tells the story of a father struggling to cope after the unexpected death of his son from an aggressive virus. Although told through a softer, more hopeful lens than Haneke’s masterpiece, the novel still delves into uncomfortable territory, from the body’s frightening decay to the business side of funerals.

Punctuating the chapters are quotes from famous writers and thinkers, musing on those age-old concepts of love and death. The acknowledgements section sadly reveals The Son is loosely autobiographical. It’s clear that when faced with the unexplainable, we, like Rostain, seek solace in literature where words are carefully measured, at once intimate and universal in their reach. How well the novel’s second person, omniscient narration works is a matter of individual reception. Some might find its tone preachy, others consoling. To be fair, The Son is coming to readers as a French-to-English translation.

Rostain also makes clear in his acknowledgements that he is not providing any set answers for the living. He believes, rather, ‘It’s for each of us to work out. And for each of us to help others work it out.’ As a work of fiction The Son is flawed, the plot largely overshadowed by its themes. Nevertheless, it generously offers a window into grief and the painstaking journey to the other side of it.

Emily Laidlaw is a freelance reviewer.

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