Browsing shelves of quaint independent bookshops has to be one of the loveliest ways to spend an afternoon. It’s that feeling of anticipation as your fingers trip over the jutting spines of books, accompanied by a sense of warm familiarity as certain authors catch your eye. There are novels of behemoth proportions and others more modest, in size only, not content. The Stranger (L’Étranger) by Albert Camus belongs to the latter. You would be forgiven easily for failing to notice the slight novel on any cluttered shelf; and though it can be read in one sitting, numbering a mere 123 pages, it certainly leaves a mark.
A French writer, Albert Camus, grew up in Algeria, working odd jobs to pay for university. His work ranges fiction, plays, essays and journalism. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, he is best known for his novel The Stranger. It is the story of an ordinary young man named Meursault, who unwittingly becomes entangled in extraordinary circumstances, finding himself at the center of a police investigation. Careful of the need not to disclose details for fear of ruining the impact of such a plot, it can be said instead that the story is both unpredictable and haunting; a tale unafraid of raising important philosophical questions.
The novel is divided into two sections, the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the event that would change Meursault’s life. Part one is cleverly constructed to set up the mundane of his daily existence: days at the office, hours at home alone, time spent at the beach with his lover Marie Cordona. However, just as one is lulled into a state of complacency, the plot takes a dramatic turn and part two begins. There is a sense of absurdity to the novel. How could this event have happened to Meursault? And why on earth did he do it?
Camus is an elegant writer; do not be deceived by his style or the spare language, the simplicity and the clarity that are hallmarks of the novel. He has a penchant for short sentences; describing things exactly as he sees them. Camus is a “less is more” writer; there are no convoluted observations. Indeed, the reader can trust him to call “a spade a spade”. He inflicts no extensive stream-of-consciousness rants on his readers. Instead, Meursault remains wordlessly resigned in accepting his fate.
The Stranger is a thoughtful and well-executed novel; evidence it is possible to tell a great story within the limits of a hundred or so pages. It is a book for those not fond of lengthy or lyrical prose, and those able to admire the beauty of economy in language in the midst of deep, philosophical content.
Book Review by Annette Ong