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A chilling crime thriller that explores the nature of power, corruption, and victimization, “The Girl You Call” is utterly compelling.

The Girl You Call

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The English title of French writer Tanguy Viel’s latest novel, The Girl You Call, is a play on “call girl,” which is slang for sex worker. But there are no sex workers in Viel’s unsettling story – instead, there is a cast of characters caught in a dangerous power struggle.

The novel (which was translated by William Rodarmor) plays with language throughout. Viel (who has previously been awarded the Prix Fénéon, Prix littéraire de la vocation, and Grand Prix RTL-Lire) vacillates between straightforward prose and dialogue and deep dives into each character’s psychological state.

The Girl You Call opens with a gut punch that alludes to the story of sexual assault and manipulation yet to come:

“Nobody asked how she was dressed that morning, but she made a point of telling them anyway.”

The woman is Laura, a young former model looking for a new place to live. Her father, Max, is a boxer about to return to the ring. As Max works as a driver for the mayor, he asks if the mayor can assist Laura in obtaining housing.

But the mayor makes assumptions about Laura (despite how she is dressed, as Laura implies).

An uneasy relationship develops between the mayor – who assumes he is entitled to Laura’s body – and Laura, who does not feel empowered to fight back against the major’s intrusive advances.

This crime novel is most frightening when it shows how this unbalanced relationship is able to grow.

Author Tanguy Viel (photo credit: Patrice Normand)

Author Tanguy Viel (photo credit: Patrice Normand)

The very society Laura lives in prioritizes the well-being of the powerful male mayor over a young woman without many resources.

The fact that Laura once did nude modeling (as a teen, which is a concerning fact on its own) is used against her in an attempt to discredit the sexual assault charge she filed. As she knows at the start of the novel, how she appears to society will ultimately affect how she is treated.

Max and Laura are both in a very different class from the mayor and unfortunately, this also contributes to the power imbalance between the father and daughter and the mayor.

The novel’s depictions of the city slide readers into Max and Laura’s environment. Billboards of both father and daughter appear throughout the city: Max is publicizing his upcoming boxing comeback, and Laura is featured in modeling advertisements. In their posters:

“[T]heir compelling gaze designed to attract attraction, although the opposite of each other, each embodying the most archetypical signs of masculine and feminine – he a beast of muscles whose every vein popped with strength and virility, she all lascivious curves, white teeth nibbling her lips.”

Max is presented as a “beast,” someone tough and strong, while Laura is purely there for the very literal male gaze, an image to be devoured by passersby.

Other characters in the novel, including the mayor’s associates and employees, also work to ensure that the mayor has unlimited access to Laura.

The Girl You Call

The insidiousness of their actions (or harmful inactions) creeps throughout every chapter of The Girl You Call, building dread as the plot builds toward its shocking conclusion.

As Laura slowly learns the horrifying reality of being caught in the mayor’s orbit, a man with ties to both the mayor and Max condescends to her, thinking, “You’re acting clever, poor girl, but the fact is you’re here.”

According to his twisted logic (as well as the mayor’s), the fact that the mayor found Laura housing was her consent to engage in sexual activity.

In the era of the #MeToo movement, Viel’s novel deftly brings the reality of power imbalances to life.

With his sparse but well-chosen prose and explorations of people’s motivations, Viel has created a chilling and unforgettable story that shows how power too often triumphs over justice.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4

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