Review: Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, Emmanuelle Pagano

Reading books in translation is something I don’t do often enough, so a huge thank you to Peirene Press who kindly me sent a copy of this book and encouraged me to try something new.

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue is a collection of stories set mostly in rural France, with a range of characters seemingly unconnected, but actually woven together in subtle and sometimes surprising ways.

Pagano’s language is simple and sometimes harsh – I wonder if that has something to do with the translation, or just her writing style – but either way, her pared-back prose are easy to read and impactful in their simplicity. From a mysterious and wrongfully-invited wedding guest to a hitchhiker picked up by the wrong kind of driver, Pagano’s stories are filled with self-awareness, humour and humanity.

One of my favourite quotes of the collection really summarises the themes of these stories: “We can’t know ourselves, only catch hold of words and images in other people’s minds to try and see more clearly inside ourselves.” In this way, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue encapsulates ideas of knowing and not-knowing, of surprising each other and ourselves.

I also really enjoyed reading the notes from translators Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis who explain why they chose these selected stories for the English version out of a much larger pool of stories from the original, and highlights one of the key symbols running through the stories: roads. The change of title from the French Un renard à mains nues (A Fox with my Bare Hands) to the English Faces on the Tip of My Tongue is also an interesting choice that seems to bring something new to to this more compact collection, and really highlights the communities and strangers at the heart of these stories.

So it’s a yes to more short stories, and a yes to reading more translated works. And a big yes to Pagano whose tight and compassionate stories I really enjoyed.

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano is published on October 22nd by Peirene Press.

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