Let me preface my review by saying that the English translation of Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes was published by my current employer, The Feminist Press. It came out before I began working there, so I didn’t read it right away. I started with all the current and upcoming books so as to prepare me to be publicist for them. Then I took a break because I think it’s too narrow a list to only read books from one publisher. After some time reading amazing literary dystopian (Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven) and the kickass feminist comic series Bitch Planet, I wandered back to the book that had been calling me since I began my job three months ago.
Apocalypse Baby hooked me immediately for two reasons: it’s a dark mystery and it features one of my favorite characters in a long time: the Hyena. The story is initially told from the perspective of Lucie, a quiet, ambitionless woman who works for a detective agency that requires her to trail teens for their rich and worried parents. When one of these teens, the bratty but ultimately empathetic Valentine, goes missing, Lucie partners with a rogue agent known for her aggressive behavior and reputation as a ladykiller.
Lucie is a doormat of a protagonist so the story really picks up once the perspectives shift to other, more interesting characters, from Valentine’s parents to Valentine herself. The best parts of the book are told through the no bullshit point of view of the Hyena. She is a dynamic and sexy character. The plot is fairly straight forward, run-on-the-mill noir as the two detectives travel from Paris to Barcelona and back in search of Valentine, who has left a trail of lovers and teenage escapades in her wake. The ending has tended to divide people on their overall impression of the book. Without giving away the surprise, I will say it worked for me.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the book is the many little witticisms about womanhood, sexuality, and feminism. Despentes, a well-known and controversial feminist, uses some of the side characters (particularly Valentine’s distant birth mother who is more consumed with marrying rich than raising her daughter) to voice the typical concerns about women and their sexuality, including choice ones about lesbians being perverts and love being a construct designed to get women into bed.
One of the more radical characters Valentine encounters is Magali, who talks a lot about politics, but rarely acts on her beliefs. In response to her, Valentine considers: “A political movement is only valid if it causes deaths. Otherwise it’s just feminism: a hobby for kept women.” This is a particularly challenging notion for an impressionable teen, quite capable of being radicalized, to ponder. Despentes uses Valentine and her characters as mouthpieces for varied degrees of beliefs. I don’t know if this quote is in line with her personal beliefs, but it gives me something big to mull over. Apocalypse Baby proves not only entertaining but thought provoking, a noir as sexy as it is intelligent.