I came to this book not knowing much beyond the fact that Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles was a big hit upon its release in France, which led to its various translations into many languages but not English…until now.
The novel begins with forty-something Joséphine finding out that her husband Antoine has been carrying on with another women and that Joséphine is last to know. She immediately kicks him out and she is left to care for their two daughters and pay off a large outstanding bank debt by herself. Antoine leaves with his mistress to Kenya to run a Chinese-owned crocodile farm. Back in France, we meet various characters (mostly other family members or close friends) that make up the ensemble of this novel. Some of their plots relate directly to Joséphine’s own and others don’t quite tie in at all. They seemed placed there to flesh out a novel that, at moments, is lacking a genuine connection.
The real meat of the book lies with the plan that Joséphine and her more glamorous but bored sister Iris come up with. Joséphine, a scholar and researcher of 12th century European history, agrees to write a novel that her aforementioned bored sister pitched to a publisher at a party. Iris tells the white lie that she’s been writing a book about this time period and regurgitates what Joséphine has gone on about in the past.
The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles suffers from unrealistic dialogue and stilted language, but it strengths lie with the relationship between the sisters. The shy and modest Joséphine feels freer to write the book she always wanted to by being Iris’ ghost writer. But when the book becomes incredibly successful and Iris is on television and in magazines promoting it, Joséphine has a mild crisis. Pancol could have explored more on the way Joséphine reacts to her new-found vigor. It is lightly mentioned or implied at times, but never really fleshed out. The crocodile farm is almost irrelevant to the novel beyond the title and her estranged husband’s occasional page presence can be chalked up to the reason to roll Joséphine out of her chrysalis.
At times, Joséphine’s sad sackery is infuriating and her older daughter, Hortense, is the only one that Pancol has written with the most believable dialogue to call her on it. Although not completely flat, almost all of the characters could use with a double dose of character development; the closest is Hortense who is first presented as a stereotypical teenage girl butting heads with her mother, but eventually, she becomes the biggest draw of the novel with quick wit and more smarts than the others.
I wonder if the odd language and syntax are present in the original French or if something is fishy with the translation. Sometimes the language is unnatural. I couldn’t help but mentally yell, No one speaks like that! Not even in a novel. Everything is explained matter-of-factly and my inner student had to refrain from the margin note: show not tell. Other odd parts of language could be due to a strange translation of French idioms. Instead of interpreting, the translators chose to stay too close to the original. For example,
It’s not like I’m the son of Frankenstein. I’m a good-looking guy with lead in his pencil, but she doesn’t even care enough to take a picture of me!
Many of the moments and reactions are predictable. This is a book I would recommend as a beach read, because it might otherwise be unfulfilling. By the end, I was more concerned with Hortense and Iris than Pancol’s lead, Joséphine. They showed more gumption and had more interesting reactions to the other characters that encompassed this world. I thought Pancol presented a gripping conundrum between the sisters and their book, but not enough trust was put in the reader to make sense of everything without being told directly by the author. Although, not surface level, it’s a shame the book didn’t pry a little more into the stories of the characters and the trouble they get themselves into.