Book review: Award-winning ‘Arcadia’ by Emanuelle Bayamack-Tam – translated by Ruth Diver

The term ‘Arcadia’ refers to a peaceful place, where human beings live in harmony. Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam’s title rapidly sounds ironic when we meet Farah, the narrator.

The fifteen-year-old girl—hypersensitive to everything, has been living in ‘Liberty House’ since she was six, because of her parents, especially her mom. Like the other misfits of this community, Farah’s parents decided to live in a “white zone”: a camp where electromagnetic waves are forbidden, hence no Internet or cellphones.

‘Acadia’: nature as a protector?

Here, nature is a shelter, where everybody can walk naked all day long and enjoy delicious and organic vegetables—because ‘meat’ means murder. The illusion does not work on Farah. Like any other teen, she feels bored and wishes she could meet people of her age. Plus, she does not know what to do with her body. She thinks she is too big, and not feminine enough.

The only person capable of helping her out seems to be the 50-year-old Arcady.

As the founder of this community, he keeps an eye on every resident and encourages the community members to have sex with each other.

He leads by example.

But when Farah – who he calls Farah Facet – asks him to be her first lover, he refuses. She is too young.

Soon enough, the two get closer and it happens. Farah discovers ‘pleasure’ and seems to better accept her body. She still wonders who she is. Does she look better dressed up as a boy, or as a girl?  Arcady plays with this ambiguity, encouraging Farah to turn it into her asset. His moto is “Tous les corps sont dans la nature”. All types of bodies exist for a reason.  

Farah claims she is in love.

But after her first visit to the gynecologist, she must confront some unexpected news. She has Rokitansky syndrome. She was born with no uterus. Quickly, she has to face new questions, the ones intersex persons are very used to. How to define yourself when you do not fit the boxes of female or male?

‘Arcadia’— fascinating on many levels

Farah’s quest is fascinating to read for many reasons.

First, the way she tells her story.

  • Farah is a freewheeling young adult that speaks honestly about any situation.
  • Her directness when she talks about her naturist grandmother, a very self-confident lady, makes us want to smile.
  • We also feel for her when her identity crisis looks like an unsolvable problem.

The novel is as intense as she is. Even if the plot is centered around Farah’s quest for self-definition, Bayamack-Tam’s uses a lot of hot topics: power, gender, the migrants’ crisis, even consent.

  • But every facet of the problem needs to be considered.
  • How much was Farah a decision-maker in her relationship with Arcady?
  • Is Liberty House really an idyllic place when its residents refuse to welcome an Eritrean refugee?
  • Ultimately, is it a libertarian community or a cult?

This dual perspective will be used until the very end of the novel, both bittersweet and furiously hopeful – thanks to Farah’s energy.

‘La Grande Librairie’ author interview

Introducing an excerpt of the famous show ‘La Grande Librairie’ where Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam evokes the intertextuality in her work. If she’s used to paying homage to Proust or Rimbaud, she also confesses that every character she invented is in search of his/her identity.

A rich and fascinating interview about ‘Arcadia’ that she defines as a “transgender book”!

It is not surprising to know that ‘Arcadia’, her first novel translated into English, won the ‘Prix du Livre Inter’ in 2019, an award usually given to original and powerful books.

The true strength of this book is its ability to enlarge the readers’ world while offering them the freedom to draw their own conclusions.

The author of ‘Arcadia’ won’t answer questions. Therefore we will have to form our own opinions and decide who is responsible for what… Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Bios and Further reading:
‘Arcadia’ by Emanuelle Bayamack-Tam – translated by Ruth Diver– Prix du Livre Inter, 2019
– Shortlisted for the Prix Femina, Prix Medicis, Prix de Flore
– Longlisted for the Prix France-Culture, Prix Wepler
Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam was born in 1966 in Marseille. She has published twelve novels and two plays with P.O.L. Editeur, three, under the pseudonym Rebecca Lighieri. She is a founding member of the interdisciplinary association ‘Austres et Pareils’ and co-director of ‘Editions Contre-Pied’. Arcadia, her first book in translation, won the Prix du Livre Inter; was short-listed for the Prix Femina, Prix Médicis, and Prix de Flore; and longlisted for the Prix France-Culture and Prix Wepler. She lives in Paris.
Ruth Diver has translated works by several of France’s leading contemporary novelists, including The Little Girl on the Ice Flow by Adélaide Bon. The Revolt by Clara Dupont-Monod, and A respectable Occupation by Julia Kerninon. Her translation of Maraudes by Sophie Pujas won the 2016 Asymptote Close Approximations Fiction Prize.
Publisher Seven Stories Press
Buy Arcadia at your favourite bookstore:
1. Booktopia
2. Available on the MyFrenchLife – MaVieFrancaise shop on USA. Unfortunately, we’re not able to add Arcadia as it is not currently available on inventry [UK/Europe]
3. Amazon

Further reading:
1. Ideals and Ideas – an online event. Rewatch this event in full here
– Arcadias: A Conversation with Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam and Lauren Groff via French Culture
2. Reviews via Goodreads
3. Review via New York Times
4. Review via Publishers Weekly

Other praise and reviews:
“A fantastic journey to a world where sex and gender binary differences and the distinctions between the normal and the pathological dissolve and transmute not without risk. Using a language full of humor and subtlety, Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam manages to capture the contradictions and complexities of the period we live in at the end of a political regime where new configurations of subjectivity, belonging, love and kinship are still taking shape but are not yet fully recognized. Moving and illuminating.”
Paul B. Preciado, author of An Apartment on Uranus

“So funny, full of joie de vivre, bursting with vitality and life. 
Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia

French writer Bayamack-Tam’s rich English-language debut chronicles the coming-of-age adventures of a teenage girl who lives in a commune with her family. After moving from Paris, Farah adjusts to new life at Liberty House, a technology-free space where the harmonious ‘love conquers all’ credo is echoed among the followers and promoted by their spiritual guru, Arcady. Farah and her family are de-baptized and renamed upon entering the community and remain carefully attuned to Arcady’s daily exegesis and impassioned sermons. Farah is a bulky, awkward adolescent who soon discovers she is intersex and grapples with conflicting male and female impulses. Meanwhile, she is coddled by an increasingly creepy Arcady, who passionately promises her unconditional acceptance and unbridled sex with him once she’s old enough. Eventually, Farah learns to embrace and treasure the ‘androgynous creature”‘her body has become, particularly after a migrant integrates himself into the community and promotes independence among Arcady’s followers. While the supporting characters are a bit too thinly drawn, Bayamack-Tam builds out the family’s swift acclimation to Liberty House with clever detail and flashes of humor, as when Farah’s nudist grandmother frolics on the commune’s grounds and her mother claims to suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity. It all adds up to an engrossing and provocative character study.
Publishers Weekly

Subversive, funny, political, erudite, Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam confirms with Arcadie that she is one of the most astonishing female novelists of our time.
Les Inrockuptibles

About the Contributor

Anne-Sophie Rouveloux

I was born in Limoges, a small city in the center of France but I spent most of my life in the Paris suburbs. I used to be a bookseller and a journalist for Page magazine and for the radio (Europe 1 and France Culture). Now, I live in Chicago but I always keep an eye on new French novels.

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