From its first disturbing pages, this novel exudes an intense aura of menace, a foreboding that begins with the slaying of an entire family in remote upper Provence, France, in 1896. Only an infant survives the bloody slaughter.
In 1920 that orphaned child, Seraphim Monge, has grown up and just returned from the war. Unfortunately, Seraphim knows nothing of the manner in which his family perished. When at last he hears the story, he becomes obsessed with the details of his mother’s final agonizing moments. He is haunted by nightmares, fragments of memory, unable to reconcile the terrible violence of his devastating loss.
This novel is filled with contrasts. Despite the turmoil in his heart, the gentle giant of a man has an angelic face that belies his troubled soul. Love beckons but is rejected as death’s siren calls to a lonely survivor. The country is rich and fertile but the hearts of the villagers are dark and rife with terrible secrets.
The land has long since been sold to wealthy neighbors who have profited from the Monge’s tragedy; all that remains is the building, Le Burliere, the murder house that belongs to Seraphim. Clutching a rusty key, his only legacy, Monge opens the door to the past. Refusing to explain his actions to interested neighbors, Seraphim begins to dismantle the house, brick by brick, returning to the place every evening after toiling as a road worker. He is not satisfied until the place of his birth is obliterated, a pile of rubble.
The villagers watch with curiosity, two of the most eligible young women attracted to the hulking man with the face of an angel. But he remains oblivious to their considerable charms or the advantages of marriage with either. Seraphim’s heart is set on destruction, his mother’s pain haunting him by night. Finally, Monge finds a cache of papers, the truth of the murders suddenly cast in a new light. What if the authorities have been wrong all these years? What if three men have been put to death in vain?
The burden of knowledge is heavy. Vengeance is on his mind, the names of the murderers in his possession. A skeletal priest makes a deathbed confession to Seraphim; a returned soldier with a face horribly disfigured by the war, Patrice Dupin, attempts to befriend the lonely giant; another figure shadows Seraphim’s every move, anticipating his every step to reconcile the murders.
This is a dark tale of a short, tragic life, the yearning of a son for his family, his quest for peace and then revenge, the weight of the past a terrible burden in a life that brings little joy. In the end, Seraphim faces the one man who knows the truth, a Grimm’s fairy tale come to vivid life, the French countryside closing in upon old secrets, as silent as the grave. The lesson: “Everyone has his own broken face.”