Thursday 4 March 2021

Review by James Holden of "Les couleurs primaires" by Mélissa Verreault

Camille lives a colourful life. She works for a paint manufacturer, where it’s her job to invent names for the 2,000 unique shades they produce each year. And yet, for all this colour, Camille’s life is colourless. She says her brain is blank and her hours at work empty. It is to fill this emptiness that she sets out on a quest to discover whether or not someone has ever loved her but not had the courage to tell her. It’s a quest that takes her to old friends and haunts, and ultimately to a decision about her life.

This is the outline of Mélissa Verreault’s charming short novel Les couleurs primaires. It is published by Les Éditions Didier as part of their range aimed at French language learners, ‘Mondes en VF.’ The texts in this range are all pitched at a certain language level as defined by the CEFR. Verreault’s novel is defined as being A2 level, which means that it’s intended for learners at an ‘Elementary’ standard. I should say here, though, that this does not make the text suitable for beginners.

Language acquisition is a slow process. Professor Stephen Krashan’s has outlined in his theories just how important reading is to that process, and has emphasised the fundamental need for what he calls ‘compelling comprehensible input.’ The texts in the Mondes en VF range all work towards that aim – they are designed ‘pour le plaisir de lire en français.’ Verreault’s novel certainly provides compelling content for language learners. The inclusion of definitions in the footnotes make it an even more useful tool in the learning process (the definitions are themselves given in French). Additionally, and like all the texts in the range, Les couleurs primaires comes with a range of free supporting materials, including vocab sheets and exercises. Better still, it comes with a free audio version which can be downloaded from the publisher’s website.

As a language learning tool, this novel is great. The story drives the reader onwards. I was concerned enough with Camille’s quest not to feel put off by the extra effort of reading in my target language. Whilst the text is pitched at A2 standard there are definitely some trickier passages and structures. The reader will encounter the passé composé, the imparfait, the futur proche, the future simple and the conditionnel and will need to be able to differentiate between them. There are also a number of idioms. Verreault herself is from Quebec, so the reader should be aware that some of these idioms might not be heard in Paris – however, this is explained in the footnotes.

The text’s short length and its necessarily uncomplicated French means that its plot also lacks complication at times. The story is charming, and the reader feels for Camille during her quest. However, there were moments when I wanted to know more. For instance, the revelation that Camille’s school friend Karine had loved her when they were younger was passed over in a rather cursory fashion. So, too, was the revelation and then refutation of Camille’s unwitting role in a suicide.

Nevertheless, I was thoroughly charmed by this short novel, and was happy enough after finishing it to read it again immediately, this time with the audio book playing. I felt a great sense of motivation from having finished this text in my target language. I also felt motivated by Camille’s commitment at the end of her adventure to live colourfully. As she says: ‘J’ai envie de vivre en couleurs.’

About the reviewer
James Holden is an independent academic and writer. He is a Lisztian, a Proustian, and a proud nerd. The author of In Search of Vinteuil: Music, Literature and a Self Regained, his recent research has focused on the piano playing and aesthetics of the Romantics. He is currently working on improving his French. His website is here.

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