The French bestseller La Daronne
Now a major film called Mama Weed starring Isabelle Huppert
Meet Patience Portefeux, fifty-three, an underpaid French-Arabic translator who specialises in police phone taps. Widowed after the sudden death of her husband, Patience is wedged between the costs of raising her daughters and the nursing home fees for her ageing mother. She’s laboured for twenty-five years to keep everyone’s heads above water.
Happening upon an especially revealing set of wiretaps ahead of all other authorities, Patience makes a life-altering decision that sees her intervening in – and infiltrating – the machinations of a massive drug deal. She thus embarks on an entirely new career path: Patience becomes ‘the Godmother’.
With a gallery of traffickers, dealers, police officers and politicians more real than life itself, and an unforgettable woman at its centre, Hannelore Cayre’s bestselling novel shines a torchlight on a European criminal underworld that has rarely been seen, casting a piercing and darkly humorous gaze on everyday survival in contemporary France.
Winner of the European Crime Fiction Prize and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière
‘Devourable in a sitting and tastes deliciously like one of the narrator’s beloved Rothkos – dark at its centre, pulsing outward through all the more complex flavours.’ —Sarah Krasnostein
‘Patience Portefeux is a woman you won’t easily forget: tough, fearless and flawed, a modern-day heroine you'll find yourself rooting for from beginning to end.’ —Anna Jaquiery
‘A perfect little slice of French noir, written in crisp, astringent prose from which unfurls a story much more complex than its 170 pages suggest. Expertly plotted, The Godmother is the most compelling crime novel I’ve read in years, rich with the sort of idiosyncratic detail only a criminal lawyer like Cayre could know. It eschews the moral reductionism of most drug narratives, laying bare the hypocrisies of the system itself. Patience Portefeux is a wonderful combination of wit, courage and sly subversion, surprising us all the way to the end.’ —Fiona McGregor
‘Rigorous, superbly plotted by an author who clearly knows the territory. Vivid, smoky dialogue and a sly ending that ticks all the boxes . . . Masterly.’ —Le Figaro
‘The Paris of Cayre’s The Godmother is a spicy mix of cultures and classes so deftly evoked you can smell the cigarettes, coffee and Moroccan hash, taste the kebabs and Chamonix Orange cakes, feel the summer sweat trickle down your back and the hot asphalt stick to your feet. Reading this novel is a visceral delight.’ —Angela Savage
‘Readers will be anxious about the fate of the forthright, sympathetic Patience up to the final page. It’s no surprise that this novel won France’s most prestigious award for crime fiction.’ —Publishers Weekly starred review
‘A fabulous noir – more Balzac or Joyce Carol Oates than Simenon’ —Le Point
‘Spectacular’ —Annabel Crabb
Patience Portefeux, the widowed 53-year-old narrator of French author Cayre's exuberant English-language debut, lives hand-to-mouth, barely covering her two daughters' university fees and her aged mother's care working as a translator for the Paris drug squad. By chance, Patience comes into contact with the mother of a drug trafficker and, with information from police wiretaps of the trafficker's movements, is able to secure a large quantity of hash. Under the alias the Godmother, she deals herself into financial security, going so far as to launder the money in Switzerland with the purchase of pink diamonds she hides in lipstick tubes. Maybe crime doesn't pay, but the guile and guts and humor with which Patience approaches this extreme solution to her desperate situation, right under the noses of law enforcement, is admirable, as are her survival instincts. Readers will be anxious about the fate of the forthright, sympathetic Patience up to the final page. It's no surprise that this novel won the Grand Prix de Litt rature Polici re, France's most prestigious award for crime fiction.
You go, girl
French. Criminal lawyer (still practising), film director and writer. This book won the Grand Prix de Literature Policiere pour Romans français and the Quai du Polar in 2017. (No, me either, but they're big in France apparently). A film version, Mama Weed, starring Isabelle Huppert was released in France in September 2020. I presume it will come to SBS in due course.
Patient Portefuex was born into a successful criminal family, then married another successful criminal only to have her personal applecart overturned when hubby dies suddenly (of natural causes). With the trappings of her former lifestyle taken away, she ekes out a life for herself and her daughters by working as a translator of Arabic (she was cared for by an Arab nanny, read slave, as a kid, and studied Arabic at university) for the police. Her specialty is wiretaps on drug dealers, listening in and translating rather than installing them. Now in her fifties and in a relationship with a senior policeman, and weighed down by expenses including her daughters' school fees and her elderly mother's nursing home care, she seizes an opportunity that arises as a result of her covert activities to prosper from the drug trade herself. And to give a few people their comeuppance, whether they deserved it or not. Think Mary Louise Parker in the TV show Weeds, but with considerably more substance to the social commentary.
First person narrator with a light touch and a fondness for the absurd. Prose as slick as a hipster's beard oil, even in translation. The story unfolds as comedy of errors, but underlying that, serious issues are skilfully dissected, including but not limited to rampant, officially denied racism of the French against citizens of African origin, corruption in densely bureaucratic government agencies, and the sense of entitlement and pursuit of luxuries endemic in the populace.
French literature at its best is provocative. That certainly applies here.