We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The pleasure of ambitious small books—books offering a microcosm that’s just as teeming and fascinating as the macrocosms of the “big” novels—is, as Slate’s Meghan O’Rourke pointed out in an essay last year, all out of proportion to size. O’Rourke was discussing the tendency in American novels toward macho overinflation, and her shortlist of worthwhile “small novels” was confined to works by American writers like James Salter, Marilynne Robinson, and Denis Johnson. But it’s worth pointing out the long and unconflicted tradition of “small” French novels (even ones written by men!), from Candide to Madame Bovary to André Gide’s short novels to Boris Vian’s L’Écume des Jours. A new addition to this list—from Francophone Swiss writer Pascale Kramer—is The Living, an almost perfect example of the depth a “small” novel can encompass. The book (translated with great acuity by Tasmin Black) takes place over one summer in a small city only known as S. There are four central characters: 17-year-old Benoît, his 25-year-old sister, Louise, Louise’s husband, Vincent, and the siblings’ mother. When Louise and Vincent come to visit her family along with their two small children (the marriage is an ambivalent, adolescent affair that began with her first pregnancy at 16), she and Benoît take the children for a walk to a nearby gravel quarry. Kramer has a very non-American facility with the erotics of family relationships, and Benoît’s perspective on Louise is a sensual one: “She was smiling, her chin in the crook of her hands and her elbows planted on her thighs, as elegantly tangled as a fawn.” At the quarry, Benoît and Louise sunbathe for a while before taking the children off to play. But when he loads them up into a trolley for carrying gravel across the river, the gentle idyll is broken. Benoît lets the trolley go too quickly; the children are crushed between the car and the pylon on the other side of the river, and they are both instantly killed before Benoît and Louise’s eyes: “In truth, [Benoît] could not believe how simply one could tumble into a nightmare.” The death of the children takes place in the novel’s first chapter; the remaining 100-odd pages are concerned with the aftermath, as Louise becomes dull with despair (and the tranquilizers her helpless mother feeds her) and blustery Vincent begins straining at the marriage’s fragile cords. Benoît’s attachment to his sister evolves into a nightmarish bond, as Louise’s body becomes increasingly decrepit: “Her smells were all acrid with faintly sugary overtones and there was a slightly yeasty sourness on her breath; now and again her relaxed body gave a long gurgle.” Kramer tells the story almost entirely through painstaking microscopic description, with almost no dialogue (and certainly none of the therapized rumination you’d find in an American novel on a similar subject), and she achieves a frieze-like effect: Benoît, Louise, Vincent, and the mother are painted with great detail, especially Louise, but their personalities are mostly left unplumbed, as if to offer them a certain privacy. This trick proves oddly absorbing; it’s as if the author’s preoccupation with knitting the surface so tightly together allows a far greater space for the tragic bulk behind it. The physical specificity and “smallness” of The Living actually makes it, in many senses, a very large novel.