(Editions de l’Observatoire, 256 pages, 2019)
*** LONGLISTED FOR THE 2019 PRIX GONCOURT and prix jean giono ***
Why is Chafia, a young, determined, and cheeky Muslim girl, hiding from the police? And what does she have in common with Jenny Marchand, an introverted and morose fifteen-year-old girl with no taste for life?
Going through puberty is not easy, and Jenny Marchand experiences its trials and tribulations in the worst ways. Not only does she suffer crippling shyness, but also her face is riddled with acne, her classmates bully her mercilessly, and she feels as if her parents live on a different planet. Apart from reading Harry Potter, Jenny publishes her frustrations on social media. She never expected her posts to be answered, especially by another young girl, Dounia, who understands her loneliness like no one else.
Jenny hangs on to every word Dounia sends her. She eventually finds a reason to continue living and clings to it, even if it means watching videos of beheadings. When Dounia explains that ISIS kills to deliver the world from a “system” responsible for the current human decline, she doesn’t question it because it fills the emptiness of her daily life. Step by step, Jenny converts to Islam and starts wearing a hijab in front of her parents, who never question their own responsibility. She finally becomes Chafia Al-Faransi, her new, radical alter ego.
For the first time Jenny/Chafia feels understood, and the hatred she has developed within herself for years can now put into service of the “mission” assigned to her: destroy a political class ruled only by selfish, self-interested people, led by a government out of touch with the values of its people. Encouraged by her new “brothers”, Chafia goes beyond all expectations and ends up committing the unthinkable.
Sister ultimately evokes many modern-day teenagers’ lack of direction and idleness in our current society, making them perfect targets for extremist recruiters. Motivated by fear, abandonment, and revenge, Jenny represents young people in need of new role models and a cause to fight for. Quentin succeeds in jolting us, leaving us wondering if we, too, could fall into the mirage of radical religious terrorism.
Abel Quentin is a lawyer specializing in jihadism. His debut novel, Sister, is on the list for the Goncourt Prize 2019.