“This is an important book, whose characters stay with us long after the last pages have been turned,” wrote journalist Alexandra Schwartzbrod in Libération, a left-leaning daily, adding that “it gives us the keys to better understand the extent of the current rejection of our political and economic elites.”
The award comes at a time of growing frustration in France with President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to overhaul the economy, which are seen as favoring the rich. Several political blunders have reinforced that view. Macon was recently captured on video lecturing an out-of-work gardener in Paris to look harder for a job. “Emmanuel Macron should read this book,” Paule Constant, one of the prize’s jurors, told Le Figaro.
“I wanted to say what it’s like to grow up in a world that is finished, with an inheritance you don’t want, in a place where you are very far from the big city,” Mathieu said. “I wanted to speak for those people, not to judge, but to understand.”
Mathieu is not the only French author to have received domestic acclaim and international attention for writing about working-class youth. Writers like Didier Eribon and Édouard Louis have also been praised for their work.
Louis, who went on to find global success, came to attention with “The End of Eddy,” about growing up gay in a postindustrial region of northern France. It is a book filled with violence and despair.
Mathieu grew up in a small town in eastern France, the son of an electrical mechanic and an accountant. He witnessed the impacts of deindustrialization, too. The novel is not based on his own childhood, he said, “But I know that place.” He has been influenced by American authors such as John Steinbeck and Larry Brown, he added, and hoped that would be obvious to any reader.
“Their Children After Them” is not trying to provide a solution to the region’s problems, Mathieu added. “It’s not pessimistic or optimistic. I guess it’s realistic,” he said.
“My part is to write accurately about this world and the people who grow up in that place,” he added. “They have a lot of problems, but they have a bit of freedom and they can keep trying to succeed.”