Friday 17 June 2011

Book review : Bon Courage - Ken McAdams

Bon Courage is the autobiographical tale of Ken and Bing, two Americans starting out on a new life together, both in a new marriage (a second marriage for both of them, after Bing's divorce and Ken's first wife Bobbye sadly passing away) and a new country, as they fall in love with the South of France on their honeymoon and end up buying a house in a small village they refer to only as Black Mountain. Getting to grips with a new language, a new lifestyle and some colourful local characters adds an extra dimension to the inevitable teething problems all newly-weds go through as they get to know each other.

As a Brit living in France myself, I frequently found myself smirking at the tales Ken tells of the French way of life, in particular the rather aggressive driving and the laid-back attitude of builders. The inevitable comparison is with A Year in Provence, and Ken does in fact refer to this classic novel himself. The cast of secondary characters comprising all the Black Mountain inhabitants does sometimes seem to fall into the "stereotypical French people" mould - the brave Résistance heroine, the all-day red wine drinker, the clock-watching labourer, the hot-blooded al fresco lover - but I'm sure there is at least an element of truth in these personifications !

Unfortunately these rather one-dimensional and often unflattering descriptions left me feeling vaguely uncomfortable. The reader may never find out exactly where Black Mountain really is and what the real names of the different inhabitants are, but anyone who knows Ken and Bing, les Américains, can't help but recognise themselves. Reading about private conversations and even arguments left me feeling uneasy, particularly when these moved on to the domain of religious beliefs and private family problems. I couldn't help but wonder what these people would think about their private lives and thoughts being made public all over the world in the book.

Ken doesn't always escape his own rather stereotypical characterisations either - at times, he comes across as the loud, brash American, running like a buffalo in a china shop through a sleepy French village - and his detailed descriptions of his arguments with Bing lead us to think that he may be slightly insensitive and hot-headed, which detracts from our sympathy for him when they get into scrapes with the locals.

Although the language barrier is an important theme in the narrative and the approximative translations in the dialogues as they grapple with the language add charm and humour to their tales, I did wince a few times at the bad translations offered in brackets after certain words, presumably as an educational aside to readers. A French-speaking proof reader would have been a good investment !

All in all, it's an enjoyable read though. Ken and Bing learn as much about themselves and their own failings as they do about the French language and lifestyle and watching them evolve as a couple, as well as being welcomed into their new French home, is heartwarming. Their adventures and misadventures may take them on a rollercoaster ride of emotions but it's ultimately a learning curve that will take them to a better place, whichever country they choose to live in.

star rating : 4/5

RRP : £19.50 (or £16.58 on amazon)

Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Moyer Bell Ltd ,U.S.; 1 edition (3 Jun 2010)
Language English
ISBN-10: 9781559213981
ISBN-13: 978-1559213981
ASIN: 1559213981

available from Gazelle Books (01524 68765)

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