Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Book Club, Fiction

Join the #ReadUCP Book Club: Read the Opening Extract from “The Safe House: A Novel”

Friends, we have your quarantine reading right here: The Safe House: A Novel by Christophe Boltanski and translated from the French by Laura Marris. In Paris’s exclusive Saint-Germain neighborhood is a mansion. In that mansion lives a family. Deep in that mansion. The Bolts are that family, and they have secrets. The Safe House tells their story.

The Safe House was a literary sensation when published in France in 2015 and won the Prix de Prix, France’s most prestigious book prize. With hints of Oulipian playfulness and an atmosphere of dark humor, The Safe House is an unforgettable portrait of a self-imprisoned family.

We invite you to read with us throughout May and June and then join us for our virtual book club meeting with translator Laura Marris on Twitter on June 25 at 2PM CT. Follow #ReadUCP and @LauraMarris on Twitter for all the latest.

CAR: 1

I never saw them walk outside alone. Or even together. Never saw them so much as stroll the length of a block. They only ventured out on wheels. Sitting pressed against each other, shielded by the body of the car— behind some cover, no matter how slight. In Paris, they drove around in a Fiat 500 Lusso, a white one. It was a simple car, easy to handle, reassuring. It suited their scale, round and dwarf sized, with its speedometer that went up to seventy- five miles per hour, its two-cylinder rear engine making a death rattle, the sputter of an old, hacking tugboat. They parked it in the cobblestone courtyard facing the archway, along the main wing of the house, ready to leave at a moment’s notice, almost stuck to the wall like the escape pod of a rocket ship. The front passenger door always opposite the kitchen entrance. They only had to navigate a few stone stairs to reach their vehicle, and to make it easier, an extra step had been added to part of each stair at half height. Once they made it down, they could drop straight into the car. No one was abandoned— we always left together. She would take the wheel. He’d sit next to her. I piled into the backseat with Anne and Jean- Élie.

She wore huge glasses with clear brown frames and slightly tinted oval lenses. Before turning the ignition, she would lean toward the mirror on the back of the visor, fluff her hair with her palms to lift it into a pouf, stick out her cheeks, and make a duck-faced pout to check her foundation and lipstick. Then she’d start the engine with a racket like a bunch of pots and pans reverberating off the facades. At the helm of her little motor, which was seized with violent trembling every time the pistons turned, she morphed into a cyborg. One with her machine.

Since her lifeless legs couldn’t press the pedals, long levers had been added with the help of God- knows- what mechanic. Like the broom handles from vintage airplanes, these allowed her to brake and accelerate— and so to drive, which she did at considerable speed, at her fastest whenever she encountered a pedestrian crossing against the light. She pounced with joyful rage, preferably on limping old men, to punish them for what little freedom of movement they had and to scare her passengers. She never ran anyone over. I have no idea if she had a license, and if so, by what means she had gotten one. She loved driving. The car was her wheelchair, her legs regained, her triumph over forced immobility.

Christophe Boltanski is an award-winning journalist who reported for Libération from London, Jerusalem, and the Gulf War. The Safe House is his first novel. Laura Marris is a poet, essayist, and translator. She has been a MacDowell Colony fellow, and her translation of Louis Guilloux’s Le Sang noir is forthcoming from the New York Review Books.

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