Sabri Louatah

Corsair, £12.99

Review: Alastair Mabbott

THE prospect of one day having a president of Arab descent has sparked much speculation among French authors. In his novel Submission, Michel Houellebecq wrote of how a strategy to split the far-right vote results in the election of the Muslim Fraternity candidate, who imposes Islamic laws to which the proudly secular French acquiesce with surprising ease.

Sabri Louatah’s Savages is much less satirical, being far more concerned with the lives and views of ordinary French families, specifically the sizeable minority of French citizens who are of Algerian descent. Savages is set at election time, and this is a very significant election. France may end up with its first Arab president. The candidate is Idder Chaouch. Smooth, charismatic, intelligent and cultured, he’s an Obama-like figure giving France’s Arab population the hope of having their voices heard in the highest office in the land. Whether he will turn out to be a unifying or divisive figure is, at this stage, impossible to say.

Although our initial impression is that Chaouch is the central character, we’ve barely got to know him (and his American advisor with the unusual upper-body strength) before Louatah whisks him out of sight to focus instead on the preparations for a wedding in Saint-Etienne. This introduces us to the Nerrouche family, whose son Slim is getting married. Slim’s brother, Faoud, is a popular soap actor who is dating Chaouch’s daughter – a fact which isn’t yet public knowledge. But the other connection forming between the Nerrouches and Idder Chaouch is far more sinister. Slim’s other brother, Nazir, is involved with fundamentalist terrorists and plans an attempt on Chaouch’s life.

Crucial to Nazir’s plan is Krim, a cousin of the Nerrouche brothers, who spends most of the wedding day shuffling around like the disaffected teenage stoner he is, but who has in fact been enlisted to carry out an act that would horrify and shame his family.

One of the biggest influences on Savages has been long-form TV drama. Louatah, a huge Sopranos fan, has sidelined the kind of stock characters one might expect to find in an assassination story, revealing the plot gradually through the interactions between ordinary French Algerians. Rather than sketching out a cat-and-mouse game between spooks and terrorists, Louatah roots his conspiracy thriller firmly among the kind of people he grew up with, people with a diverse spread of opinions and varying degrees of cynicism, optimism, political engagement and religious observance.

His adherence to the methods of TV drama brings with it the commitment of the audience to being in it for the long haul. Savages is only the first volume in Louatah’s “Saint-Etienne Quartet”, an introduction which, for all the obvious care taken over its pacing, builds that little bit too slowly and leaves one particular plot thread dangling as a shameless cliffhanger. The rest of the series is available, if your French is up to the task. Non-Francophone readers will have to endure the familiar agony associated with waiting for next season to arrive.