One cad with a bullet in his chest. Eight women's stories, collected by lawyer Marie-Martine Lepage (her own story is included). She says of another of the women, the film actress, "Her delivery would have put a sub-machine-gun to shame."
Sebastien Japrisot's delivery of Women in Evidence is a little more careful than that, leaving barely any bodies in its wake, but for all his control, causing a lot of confusion. Days after finishing reading it, I'm still trying to fit the pieces together.
A prologue gives us a scene with Christophe — or Vincent, or Tony, Francis, Frédéric, or Maurice — we are relatively certain they are the same man — seemingly dying on a beach. Some of the women's stories begin with a fugitive and end with shots fired, so I was a few stories in before I was confident that the dying figure was in fact the end of the story.
The testimonies are quite a marvel, each having a very distinct voice (prostitute, schoolteacher, Japanese student, etc). Each woman tells what she knows of Christophe, most of the women meeting him just as the previous one leaves off, though there is some overlap, and plenty of contradictions.
I was drawn along, not caring who ultimately drops him at death's door so much as trying to determine the truth of the testimony and to piece together Christophe's past. He's allegedly on the run after escaping from prison, having been wrongly convicted — but if he didn't rape and murder that girl, then who? He's also an army deserter (the events occur during World War II). His adventures take him around the world and strain credibility. Just who is this guy really?
All the women believe he is innocent, but they're also in love with him. Beyond whether you can trust a woman in love is the question of a verifiable reality versus what she herself believes to be true. How much of the evidence is projected fantasy? Christophe's "Javert-like accuser" pops up from time to time to remind the reader of the issues at stake.
The novel is somewhat erotic, the woman enjoying many sexual escapades with our (anti)hero. I was also entranced by him, rooting for him, but in hindsight I wonder why. We know him to be good-looking, but his charm and charisma are never fully in evidence, only their effects. I was entranced by the women's entrancements. The sexual interludes read rather more like a man's idea of what women's sexual fantasies of him might be.
The epilogue somewhat surreally addresses this and explains away the contradictions in the evidence, but it's also something of a cheap trick. I'd've much preferred the epilogue be left out, leaving me to sort out the ambiguities for myself rather than nipping my line of questioning just when I thought I was making headway. Still, it's the journey and all that, the book is a wonderful concept, and I can understand Japrisot's inclusion on the list of Great Underappreciated Authors, and I will definitely look out for more of his work.
Women in Evidence, along with Japrisot's other novels, has been called "atmospheric" — I'm not sure what that means, but I agree.
French Wikipedia offers some interesting biographical details: The pseudonym Sebastien Japrisot is an anagram of his real name (Jean-Baptiste Rossi). One of his earliest literary endeavours was the translation into French of The Catcher in the Rye (for publication, 1953). He's written as many (or more) screenplays (including The Story of O) as he has novels.
Women in Evidence was originally published in English as The Passion of Women.