A teenage boy in a small French town falls in love with the girl of his dreams. Then comes the horror — the January 2015 attacks in Paris, the first of a series of terror strikes that has left this country scarred and divided.
"Do we have the right to be in love, to experience joy, to smile when death strikes?" asked Arnaud Cathrine, describing one of the questions he explores in his newly released novel, A La Place du Coeur (roughly translated as Instead of the Heart), the first of a two-part series that targets young adults.
Cathrine's novel is among a raft of darkly rimmed tomes hitting bookstores around the country for “la rentrée litteraire” — the start of France's literary season that coincides with the return to school and the end of lengthy summer holidays.
More than 500 novels are making their debut for this year's rentrée, most of them by French authors. And while they deal with a hodgepodge of subjects, many are informed in one way or another by the string of Islamist attacks over the past 20 months.
A French man reads Arnaud Cathrine's latest novel, set during the January 2015 terrorist attacks. (L. Bryant/VOA)
"This rentrée re-examines France's wounds," said Glenn Tavennec, an editorial director at the Paris-based publishing house Robert Laffont. "It doesn't necessarily plunge us back into the events, but it invites us, as readers, to give them a second look and consider another way of living."
The literary selection includes L'Insouciance by Karine Tuil, about a French lieutenant returning from Afghanistan. Another, Evelyne ou le Djihad by Mohamed Nedali, is about a Moroccan high school student who finds himself sharing a prison cell with an extremist.
There is even Une Poupée au Pays de Daech, (or A Doll in Islamic State Country), starring the ubiquitous Barbie … in a face-covering niqab.
The terror attacks also have influenced this fall's nonfiction selection.
"We have a lot of titles on the French attacks, or on Islamic State or the terrorist threat in general," said an employee manning the nonfiction section of popular Paris bookstore Gibert Jeune.
A slew of books are on display at L'Alba bookstore in the French town of Ile Rousse. (L. Bryant/VOA)
While it's too early to say how the latest releases will fare, he said, similar themes have "sold well" this year.
Bookstore owner Marie-José Mancini believes the latest releases reflect a more sustained, darker turn to French literature.
"We've seen it for some time — many authors aren't interested in humor," she said. "I'm not sure what the reason is, why society has evolved this way. Perhaps the economic problems influence things as well."
Editor Tavennec says many of the current crop of novels either deal obliquely with the terrorist strikes or, as another fallout, tap a sense of nostalgia for a glorified past.
A newly released crime novel, also published by Robert Laffont, offers a more cynical take on recent French history. Set in 1942 under France's pro-Nazi Vichy regime, L'affaire Leon Sadorski (The Leon Sadorski Affair) by Romain Slocombe has as its main character an investigator who is both anti-Semitic and a collaborator.
"It's atrociously delicious," Tavennec said, drawing parallels between the country's World War II past and the current state of emergency and rise of the far right. "You discover what occupation was like. It reflects where we come from."
Novelist Cathrine was not in Paris during the January attacks. Like his characters, he experienced the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher store through the media.
"As a novelist, I simply wanted to ask the question of what people understand from events streamed continuously on TV screens and smartphones," he said. "It's almost like living in a suspense movie with a non-stop news cycle that tends to make things less real."
The central character in his book, 17-year-old Caumes, falls in love the day before the Charlie Hebdo attacks. As events unfold, a Muslim friend is beaten to death.
The book's sequel is set during November's attacks on the Bataclan and other spots that killed 130 people. This time, Cathrine was at home in his Paris neighborhood, not far from some of the shootings.
"In one year, the terrorists attacked just about everything: free expression, Jews, the youth, the Arabs," he said. "I lived it like everyone; as a despairing event. But at the end, people want to affirm life, whatever it takes."
He hopes that will be the main takeaway for readers; "that joy is not destroyed, that the time for insouciance isn't over because of this tragedy."