Timothée de Fombelle’s much-praised debut novel, Toby Alone, was a delight and happily it was translated into 22 languages from the original French to spread the enjoyment. Following its sequel, Toby Alone and the Secrets of the Tree, we now have de Fombelle’s third novel, Vango, a breath-taking historical thriller set in the 1930s, which romps across continents with great pace and aplomb as it follows the escapades of Vango, a boy of mysterious origins who speaks five languages and has learnt to ‘tame the vertical’. The mysteries of his past ‘trouble him from morning to night, and from night to morning’ and the only constant in his life is that since the age of fourteen, someone has been after him.
The action kicks off in April 1934 in Paris, in the square in front of Notre Dame, where our hero is about to become a priest. Then the police arrive to arrest him, and within seconds, Vango is on the run again. Cue a whole succession of exhilarating scenes with a host of weird and wonderful characters as he tries to prove his innocence: in the bowels of an airship as the SS hunt for a youthful stowaway; galloping across Scottish moorland at top speed; perched vertiginously on the crater of an Italian volcano.
Description and sense of place not surprisingly take a back seat to the hurtling cinema of the plot, but despite this, de Fombelle has a gift for evoking the essence of a scene with a small telling detail, whether he is describing the tea-sipping old ladies at the Ritz in the Place Vendôme who ‘gave off a scent of white lilies and bergamot’ or the ‘girl with green eyes’ who drives a tiny mud-splattered Napier Railton. Nothing is wasted, and the occasional maps, diagrams and photos only add to the authenticity of events so vividly portrayed, they feel only just off-stage from the real historical happenings against which they are played out.
This is a terrific novel and a veritable page-turner; although occasionally you’ll find yourself turning them back, as it is hard to keep pace in parts. Vango has shades of both John Buchan and Raymond Chandler, and in noir thriller territory, that is high praise. If nothing else, with settings which range from the Highlands of Scotland and Stalin’s Black Sea hangout, to Lake Constance and the Aeolian Islands, it will provide an excellent geography workout for young readers. Appropriately so, in a novel which celebrates the friendship between nations, and how it can triumph over totalitarianism.
For ultimately, along with the thrills and spills, this is a novel about freedom: freedom of movement, and freedom of expression; and as such it’s great to see that it received an award from English PEN. And full marks to Walker for giving the award-winning Sarah Ardizzone almost equal billing with the author for her lucid and luminous English translation, I for one can’t wait to find out where in the world Book 2 – Vango: A Prince Without a Kingdom – will transport us.