Review: ‘Three’ by Valérie Perrin


Three follows the lives of three friends, whose heady and immediate friendship forms a cocoon separating them from the remaining world. But as they grow and their paths begin to diverge, secrets, betrayals, and disillusionment trigger the dismantling of the once impenetrable barrier of familial love.

Perrin’s novel ruptures the notion of identity with fevered precision. The impulse seems to derive entirely from obsession, which exists both between the characters and within the narrative. Its length allows for  — and heavily relies on — the contortion of time, creating a remarkably autoerotic work. That’s because there’s an underlying itch to consume and ruin, to experience and to be experienced.

In part thanks to Hildegarde Serle’s precise, sensory translation, Three transplants you wholly onto its pages, leaving you between two drags of air and twice as many enigmas. This is a remarkable feat, as the plot swaggers up and down its timeline frantically, conveying a sense of derailment that’s as thematic as it is subliminal.

The transitions between the scenes are smooth enough to prickle the senses. Each character possesses a voice and backbone that demands notice. And, perhaps due to the simplicity of its outer form, Three feeds on sentiment in a way that completely lacks self-consciousness. 

What the characters want, they both take and relish. Their experiences seem to lack validity if they are not shared. Their bodies are stripped of meat if it’s not touched and savored.

Though unsettling at times and eerie on the whole, the story is perfectly hypnotic; even if the central mystery, the one concerning the car found at the bottom of the lake, is dragged out to the point of losing some of its elasticity.

The repetition of the details surrounding it is dulled by the plot’s swelling complexity. And yet, its obscure form remains a palpable presence in the background. Again and again, the narrative taunts with its inwardness. The characters, though badly flawed, are nevertheless captivating. The events, though shocking, never once pare their tender edge. 

The disturbing nature of ingesting an outsider’s tale — at least on the face of it — heightens the misery that emanates from the passage of time. Nostalgia, melancholy, remorse, and yearning fuse with the more acute sensations of lust, obsession, and interdependence. These, present only in the here and now, nevertheless long for the endurance of memory with the same anguish.

The shocks that materialize along the way feel like thrusts, but they are never sensationalistic. In fact, they seem all the more volatile because of the novel’s ambiance; as thick as honey, and just as smothering.

The resulting back-and-forth resembles a half-choked dialogue between the past and the present, invigorated by a shifting point of view. Thus, the novel’s mysteries lie not in the characters’ thoughts, but their actions.

Here, too, Perrin shows off her control over suspense. She peels back layers of intrigue with a self-restraint that contrasts wildly against the inflamed senses of her protagonists, allowing us to challenge the disarray of the world they inhabit.

Every blade that sinks into the gut of another is drawn first from the psyche. This mutability of emotion, which often stems from the pretext of love, will forever remain a terrifying notion.

The twist that comes at the end is knotted so tightly with the story’s other threads that its reveal severs our grasp of the narrative. The sentiment that breaks through this wreckage is fragile and delicate, and the plot’s fierce protection of it feels entirely justified.

Though purer than expected, this revelation still manages to overthrow Three‘s emotional structure. In many ways, it acts like a tremor racing down an exposed nerve.

The idea of being buried beneath foreign skin  — the very concept of identity, in fact — is now being explored with more clarity and tenacity than ever before. And Perrin certainly raises the bar when it comes to its artistic delivery. Her exploration delves under the membrane of the individual, then probes the identities shaped around, and within, the framework of friendship and romance.

To put it simply, Perrin treats the subject matter as a living, writhing thing. The only small charge that can be made against Three is the very nature of the three-way friendship. Its conception is almost immaculate. The attraction that pulls Nina, Adrien, and Etienne together is nearly divine. Though lines blur over time, it is not desire that binds them. 

And yet, the tenacity of their friendship sometimes feels too abstract to seize fully. We understand their addiction to each other on a rational level. We can stitch their affection for one another to the narrative like a skin graft. Even so, the cell remains a foreign component. 

This is felt particularly keenly when we’re told — and shown — that there is very little linking two of them together; that without the cohesive presence of the third, there would likely be no triangle of tribulation. Inevitably, the dilemmas their friendship has to endure lose the jagged edge of hysteria, which their words clearly denote.

The subliminal level, which is so deftly manipulated by the story’s other facets, is therefore barely reached. Then again, it may be that any shift in the friendship’s design would result in lasting impracticality.

Overall, Three is all-consuming, tantalizing, intricate, and masterly. There is no other work like it, and this in itself renders any contemplation of its quiet ferocity a feat of perseverance. The novel’s impact proves all the more enduring because of its length, which cannot be ripped through easily in one sitting. We can even go as far as to say that Three knowingly prolongs the semisweet torture of its intimacy.

Publication date: June 7, 2022 (Europa Editions)

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