Claire Messud mixes truth and invention to tell her French Algerian family’s story

A woman standing against a wall, smiling with mouth closed, wearing a dark blouse
Author Claire Messud.
(Lucian Wood)

Book Review

The Strange Eventful History: A Novel

By Claire Messud
W.W. Norton & Company: 448 pages, $29.99
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Claire Messud’s latest novel, “This Strange Eventful History,” has a compelling history of its own. It is based on the dramas and wanderings of her own French Algerian and Canadian family. And it draws on a handwritten memoir, more than 1,000 pages long, by her paternal grandfather — just how liberally or precisely, though, we cannot be sure.

Messud notes, in a disclaimer, that “all characters, events, and incidents have been fictionalized.” The resulting amalgam — of truth and invention, of the epic and the intimate — is lyrically written and almost immediately absorbing. As we come to know its characters, it packs a surprising emotional punch, all the more so because of its ambiguous relationship to reality.

This Strange Eventful History book jacket
(W.W. Norton & Company)

Messud’s multigenerational tale of the Cassars, a family displaced from French colonial Algeria, is told from divergent perspectives, mostly in the third person. The sole first-person narration is by one granddaughter, Chloe, Messud’s presumptive stand-in.

“I’m a writer; I tell stories,” Chloe says in the prologue. “Of course, really, I want to save lives,” she adds, though she has been schooled to believe, in W.H. Auden’s oft-quoted formulation, “that poetry makes nothing happen.” Her first challenge, she suggests, is where to begin — especially since every beginning is also a middle, every perspective always a partial one, and “the past swirls alongside and inside the present.”

The Cassars are prey to the tumultuous history of the 20th century, with its clashing nationalisms, wars of colonialism and aggression and increasingly global world order. These forces spur the family’s dizzying sequence of migrations, separations and resettlements, propelling its members, in various combinations, from Algeria and Lebanon to France, Greece, the United States, Switzerland, Canada, Argentina and Australia.


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By heritage, the Cassars are French Algerian settlers, or pieds-noirs — not fully accepted either by native Algerians or the French. One of the novel’s themes is a perennial longing for home and a sense of belonging. The Cassars’ frequent alienation from their surroundings, their self-definition as outsiders, intensifies their family ties, even if those ties sometimes chafe or fail to bind. “You mustn’t care too much about a place, the way you mustn’t care too much for people beyond your family,” François, Chloe’s father, tells himself.

The family’s nomadic history, as sketched here, stretches from 1940 to 2010, with an epilogue flashing back to 1927. Famous names — Gloria Steinem, Jorge Luis Borges and the philosophers Jacques Derrida and Raymond Aron — pop up in cameo roles. Against the backdrop of world-historical upheavals, Messud recounts a bittersweet story of passionate love, frustrated ambitions, emotional dysfunction and, ultimately, survival.

As World War II begins, Gaston Cassar, Chloe’s grandfather, is a naval officer marooned in Salonica, Greece, without his family. His wife, Lucienne, 13 years his senior, has returned to Algeria with their two children. The couple’s seemingly mythic love, which survives this separation and more, is akin to the fabled green light in “The Great Gatsby,” at once enticing and misleading.

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Gaston and Lucienne’s son, François, is forever hoping for his father’s approval. A gifted student, he wins a Fulbright fellowship and enrolls at Amherst College to make a new American start. The next step is graduate studies at Harvard, “the very signifier of triumph.” During a summer at Oxford, he meets Barbara Fisk, the Toronto native who will become his wife.

Despite her mother’s misgivings, the match starts promisingly. But the couple’s passion fades, and separations estrange them. François, at Barbara’s urging, betrays his academic gifts to pursue a more lucrative business career (just as his father abandoned his literary ambitions). In losing himself, he sacrifices his wife’s adoration and respect, and turns to the bottle. Barbara, a would-be lawyer, also struggles, finding herself “like Gulliver … immobilized by so many little threads, the lines of love and obligation that had always made up an adult life.”

Meanwhile, François’ younger sister, Denise, never really leaves home. Denying her lesbian desires and battling depression, she spends much of her life romantically fixated on her married boss, mistaking his kindness for something more.


It is Chloe, daughter to François and Barbara, who must make sense of this tangled inheritance, “this strange eventful history.” That she becomes a writer, accomplishing what her father and grandfather could not, seems destined, a fulfillment of sorts.

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Messud, a lecturer in fiction at Harvard and the author of such novels as “The Woman Upstairs” and “The Emperor’s Children,” is a skilled prose stylist. One of her signature moves is a reliance on long, flowing, perfectly composed sentences filled with parallel constructions, perhaps an analogue to the flow of history. She writes, for example, of Gaston’s “beloved Algeria, forever lost but seared in him, not just the sprawling white city that he so cherished, arrayed on the hillside around the azure bay, but the hinterland, the mild arable fields, the rolling slopes, the rocky gorges, Constantine like a fairy-tale city perched on its spiny ridge, buffeted by winds, the glory of the wide desert … .”

With its shifting voices, chronology and locales, this is a demanding novel, especially for those unfamiliar with Algerian history. Sometimes, as characters revisit facts and feelings, repetition sets in. Allusions to Gaston and Lucienne’s irrevocable love, however purposeful, grow wearisome — until its significance alters in the book’s final, powerful twist.

These are quibbles. Messud writes beautifully about the toll of dementia and decrepitude, and how life’s challenges can suddenly widen or bridge emotional rifts. It’s impossible not to feel for François, in particular, as he tries to forge an existence both meaningful and loving. It is so easy, it seems, for even the well-intentioned to go badly wrong.

As she navigates her own complex, beclouded legacy, Messud’s generosity of spirit prevails. “Sometimes we feel alone,” her alter ego, 7-year-old Chloe, tells herself, wise beyond her years, “but we are always more closely connected than we think.”

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia.