Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan

Title: Underground Time
Author: Delphine de Vigan
Pages: 260
Genre: Contemporary French Fiction
Release Date: November 22nd 2011
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Source: Copy provided by publisher 

One of the most enlightening things a reader can do is open themselves up to books written by foreign authors. So many great books come from countries other than the United States and Canada, but I think many readers (myself included) stick to the familiar writings of our native tongue. For me, the most common problem I run into is a lackluster translation. I think we’ve all been in this situation. You’re reading the dry writing of an international bestseller and thinking that the story has to be better if only you could read (insert language here), right? I’ve always had a hard time accepting that what I’m reading isn’t the author’s exact word choice or phrasing. Knowing that someone else has interpreted the text, to their best of their ability I’m sure, affects my attitude when starting a translated novel, and in most cases the story comes across as flat. Luckily, Delphine de Vigan’s novel transcends all my prejudices.

First published in France in 2009, Underground Time tells the story of two Parisians who must live with the depression and loneliness that oftentimes characterize urban living. Mathilde works as the Deputy Director of Marketing at a large international food company. For eight years she has successfully worked in the same position with the same colleagues until one day when she disagrees with her boss during a presentation. This slight difference of opinions causes Jacques, notorious for his anger, to quickly turn on Mathilde. The beginning jabs are subtle, and most take the form of back-handed statements of concern. Projects she has been working on are taken away from her; she is left out of internal communications and is forced from her office to a small windowless closet. From there it spirals into an all-out psychological attack that slowly drives Mathilde into a powerless state of mind.

Thibault’s story creates the alternate narrative of the novel. His day begins after he dumps his girlfriend upon recognizing her inability to offer a deeper affection than Thibault feels necessary. Once an aspiring doctor in medical school, Thibault now works as a paramedic driving around the city being dispatched to different places and homes. As the day goes on, the isolation and lack of connection begin to wear on him and drain him both mentally and physically.

While Thibault’s story was definitely the less developed of the two, both offer a rather realistic look into two issues currently affecting modern first-world societies: the effect of corporate culture on employees and the anonymity and loneliness of urban life, which de Vigan chooses to represent with transportation. Mathilde’s story will strike a chord with anyone who hass ever experienced a negative office environment where just the thought of having to go to work can send your mood plummeting. De Vigan does a great job of capturing how quickly one can be rendered powerless by an employer. While I often questioned why Mathilde never tried looking for another job, I came to understand that most people are afraid of change -  especially as a single mother who really does depend on her salary; and most hope that if they can just hold on a little longer, then justice will prevail. Both Thibault's and Mathilde’s stories use transportation, both public and private, to comment on contemporary urban life. Mathilde takes the Metro daily and realizes that even a certain physical proximity does nothing to offer a sense of connection for people.
When she catches someone’s eye, she looks away. Even when it’s busy, there remains on public transport both a certain intimacy and a sense of reserve; limits imposed on the eye since they can’t be imposed on the body.
Thibault spends his day isolated in his personal vehicle while riding around the streets of Paris. Much of his life has been spent sitting in traffic, at red lights, or searching for a parking space. These annoyances that plague an urban dweller can slowly wear down one’s quality of life. De Vigan eloquently shows how transportation, the staple of city life, can enforce an anonymity among a group of people who are so close yet seemingly so far away.

There may not be much action to the plot, which takes place over 24 hours with a few flashbacks thrown in, but Underground Time wowed me with a realistic portrayal of two separate people dealing with similar situations, although I do question why Thibault’s story wasn’t as evenly developed as Mathilde’s. One big thing I took away from the novel is that we are not alone in our feelings of depression, loneliness, or isolation. This wonderful translation sucked me into these people’s lives and left me feeling very emotionally connected. Overall, this is a fast read with a very French ‘feel’ that I recommend for anyone interested in a realistic portrayal of modern life.


  1. This does sound extremely interesting, and I bet that a lot of people would relate to what was going on in these character's lives. I find the inferences made about transportation to be very intriguing as well, and think that coupled with the story, they probably pose some really interesting ideas to the reader. Great review today. I appreciated the detail you went into.


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