Book review - The Sky Above the Roof

Inspired by Paul Verlaine’s poem, “Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit” (1873), written while he was incarcerated in Mons, Nathacha Appanah’s The Sky Above the Roof – which first appeared in French in 2019 – concerns three characters trapped in “their own interior prisons”. At its heart is one woman’s struggle to come to terms with a childhood trauma, and her attempts to give her children the love they need.

Born in Mauritius, Appanah now lives in France. The third of her novels to be translated into English, The Sky Above the Roof revisits several themes from her award-winning earlier work, The Tropic of Violence (2018; Tropique de la violence, 2016): isolation, shattered dreams and a son haunted by his mother. The story opens with a car crash and the arrest of seventeen-year-old Wolf for driving without a licence while travelling to visit his sister Paloma in “the town of L”. We track back in time and, through various perspectives, learn what troubles Wolf and his sister.

The damage begins with their mother. Eliette cannot forgive her own parents for putting her on display “like a Lolita”. As a child, she has a rare beauty and a voice to match, which they proudly exhibit at the end-of-year concert in the factory where her father works. “Eliette sings, she poses, she does what she is told and at the end, people applaud.” Eventually, she breaks down on stage and is hospitalized. Afterwards, she renames herself Phoenix, rejects her family and moves away from her hometown. Alone, she brings up two children. However, “whenever she thinks back to her parents, to the person she once was, to everything she went through, it was all tightly woven, tightly wrapped around her, just like a spider’s web, and she has never felt so restricted, so imprisoned, so captive”.

In trying to avoid her parents’ mistakes, Phoenix alienates her own children with her aloofness. Paloma describes her as “that magnificent, cold, inflexible woman” and seeks to escape her mother’s influence by fleeing to university. There, she discovers “a brightness in her life but in somewhat pastel shades … as if she were a trainee at living her own life, still waiting to pass the test”. Wolf’s anxiety is more destabilizing: “thoughts cannot control his body, there being too many of them, misshapen and contradictory”. He runs endless laps around the house, “in order to forget”.

Appanah’s fragmented narrative mirrors the lives of her characters. Through lyrical prose, flawlessly translated by Geoffrey Strachan, she unpeels the layers of the family’s turmoil. We gradually piece together the emotional wounds linking Phoenix to her children, the tiny decisions that have irrevocably marked them – until Wolf’s transgression unexpectedly offers the possibility of redemption.

Originally published by the TLS