Trap for Cinderella [1963/65] – ★★★★
Sébastien Japrisot (1931-2003) was an award-winning French author probably best known in the English-speaking world for his book A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiançailles) , which was adapted into a well-known film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Japrisot’s Trap for Cinderella, translated by Helen Weaver, is an inventive psychological thriller which plays with one very curious scenario: two girls are found in a burnt down beach house – one dead and one alive. The survivor is burnt beyond recognition and remembers nothing about herself or her previous life. Who is she? And what was her relationship with the dead girl? The investigation into the fire uncovers evil intentions, and our main character begins to question everything she is told about herself. Japrisot’s tale of obsession, strange friendship and mistaken identity is a wild literary ride: intense and mentally-stimulating, even if it does rely on an unbelievable and slightly preposterous turn of events.
The short novel starts as a fable: there were once three girls – Mi, Do and La and Grandmother Midola favoured Mi above Do and La. When La died, Mi still remained the favourite, and Mi and Do became friends. What happens when Grandmother Midola dies is at the core of the mystery as lies and identity confusion emerge. As one girl wakes up in a hospital with burns on her face and arms, we immediately sympathise with her as she lost all her memory. She does not remember a thing and has to rely on others to tell her what happened in her life and the events of that fateful night when the house she was in caught fire, killing another girl. The survivor is soon taken under the care of Jeanine, that person who has allegedly cared for her since she was a child. But who is she really? And who is responsible for the death of another girl? What memories are her own and what memories people want to plant in her head? As she starts her own investigation into her previous life (and her ex-lovers emerge), she soon realises that she has only started to scratch a surface of what is the real truth.
Mystery is really what drives this novel forward and there are many surprises along the way. For such a short novel, Trap for Cinderella manages to present vivid character studies: Mi or Michèle is that beautiful, rich and wild girl who has the whole of Paris at her feet, whereas Do or Domenica is a sensible and hard-working clerk at a bank who only dreams of nicer and more exciting things in her life. It is then interesting to uncover the true nature of the relationship between the two girls who are so different in their personalities. Different perspectives on events, a non-linear plot and possible unreliable narration all make the book an exciting read as we start to realise that one clue to solving the mystery may lie in that “world before sleep” [Japrisot/Weaver, 1963/65: 80], where anyone can be “a doll” and “a princess”. It is a pity then that, in an attempt to make the book and the ending clever and unforeseen, Sébastien Japrisot makes it all a bit too confusing at the end, even if the ending is still satisfying.
If you are prepared to forgive the novel’s unbelievable foundation, Trap for Cinderella is a delightful little thriller – a totally gripping, twisty, psychologically-interesting and strangely “cinematic” read.