FORMAT: Book Length Manuscript
TYPE: General Fiction
WORD COUNT: 80-100k (average)
Deng Zichao’s People Like Us is a humorous crime novel, but it is also about people like them, and by them I mean British expats living in contemporary Brittany.
Acting on a tip about an expensive artifact hidden away in a local convent, petty antiques thief Nicolas Keszthelyi blows into Brittany in the dead of winter. There, he hooks up with Estrade, a criminal acquaintance also up to no good. Together, they scheme to steal the artifact from beneath the noses of the nuns. In the process, there is an affair, people get killed, and a beautiful French detective gets involved. That’s the overarching plot, which occupies about 20% of the novel.
The rest of the book is Nicolas drifting from house to house, family to family in cold, gray Brittany trying to keep up appearances so that everyone thinks he is just another expat going about daily life. Daily life appears to be visiting one another’s houses, drinking, and eating courgettes (confession: I had to Google courgettes). Small town dynamics are in full play; gossip, rumors, affairs, and nosy neighbors are plentiful. All of this is told through Keszthelyi’s perspective (and that perspective has an interesting twist.)
As for our protagonist, he is simply an entertaining scoundrel. A true anti-hero, there is little redeeming about him. However, redeeming and entertaining are often mutually exclusive. Keszthelyi’s dry humor and snappy insights make him a fun read. In some scenes, Kesthelyi’s cool wit turns cold and his character takes on a strangely, and unexpectedly, detached nature. I think this might have been purposeful, but a few times it strayed into sinister.
From the Brittany gray winter scenery to the people going through the motions of living their daily lives, the entire novel felt cold. Not lifeless, mind you, but purposely cold. Not one character exudes warmth. Even the humor has a cool edge. It was as if all the characters tried to escape some meaningless existence in England, and ended up dragging it all with them to France. Underneath the lively wit, insights, and one-liners is a sense of quiet desperation, which Keszthelyi seems to simultaneously share, detest and exploit.
Zichao’s book is mostly built on brilliant dialogue with a smattering of narrative. This naturally creates excellent characters, and intriguing character driven sub-plots. Sometimes, however, the extensive dialogue considerably slowed down the book, especially in the middle. Wanting the main plot to proceed, I sometimes felt the urge to read ahead. Also, a few of these extensive dialogue scenes would abruptly end, and in order to get my bearings, I found myself having to reread passages to find one-sentence transitions.
Of note, there is naturally a liberal smattering of French throughout the novel. The author does a great job of leveraging the digital advantages in the Kindle version with handy hyperlinks for instant translation.
People Like Us is an intelligent (in some places brilliant), well-written and entertaining novel. It reads like a cold white wine, not sweet but dry enough to make you pucker your lips in anticipation of the next sip. Perhaps it might go well with courgettes.
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Brian L. Braden is a UBR co-founder. Visit Brian L. Braden‘s website.