Colette Fellous’s “This Tilting World” takes place at the shoreline of a nameless sea. There, its narrator reflects on the 2015 Sousse mass shootings that had occurred just a day before, the lives and deaths of various men in her life and the many places she has called home. The novel’s slimness tricks readers into believing they are in for a quick and simple read; I felt slightly betrayed when I realized (just a few pages in) that I had been made a fool. “This Tilting World” is dense. The winding passages are devoid of quotation marks and steeped in poetics, which effectively has the effect of making me feel as though my body was being hit with wave after wave of text, struggling to stay alive and afloat.
“This Tilting World” is filled with descriptions of the people, marketplaces, foods and smells of Tunisia, France and other places the narrator has lived and loved in. The novel is described as being “a love letter to (the narrator’s) homeland,” but it is arguably also a love letter to her father, literature and her life itself, which she is reflecting on in response to the massacre that had unfolded the previous day, and the death of her friend Alain. Once I reached the end of the novel, I understood how Fellous combines these elements to paint a portrait of the burden of responsibility and guilt of being a child of expatriates, one who is also without a country she can firmly claim as “home.” The narrator has inherited the trauma of exile from her parents; it has become “(her) wound now.”
“…I felt like an orphan even when my parents surrounded me with the best they could provide… this is what I’ve done all my life: cradle (my father), cradle them both in their innocence and sweetness, and even cradle what I call the country … Tunisia or the long-past memories of my parents? I don’t know. I held them up so they would not collapse.”
This is one of those books that lack a cohesive plot structure. This writing style, however, is the novel’s downfall. Without the aid of the back cover, it is hard to understand what “This Tilting World” is even about. Minimal plot structure can be liberating if done right, but Fellous’s writing is suffocating. I initially attributed it to the fact that the novel is translated from French. I attempted to slow down and savor the prose, thinking that perhaps I was rushing too much and it would be more comprehensible if I tiptoed my way through the landmine of poetics. I soon realized, though, that there was no escaping the convoluted nature of the text. I discovered that the most effective way for me to read the novel was to skim it slightly, or at least not dwell too long on every sentence. But there were undeniably several gems, including this image-heavy moment of reflection:
“So many images in a few seconds. With each sip the throbbing of even more invisible hearts joins me, moments of a life, reflections of light on a face, the scars of hours, culled from the past or perhaps still unknown, thousands of sparks dissolved in my every breath. Hearts in thrall drawing together. Geraniums, pink and white carnations, the unfurling leaves of bougainvillea, odd fragments of broken pots, pieces of colored glass…”
The way that Fellous writes feels as though she is a poet attempting to pummel a very long poem into submission through the rigid structure of a fiction novel. Pummel romantically, of course. Fallous’s writing style is refined, but too flowery for my taste. I felt minimal connection to any of the characters, even the narrator herself. While there are several segments of the text that are undeniably beautiful, they are too far and few between to fully appreciate, and wrapped in a complicated snarl of text that made my eyes glaze over.
“This Tilting World” is certainly not an easy read. See, the thing about love letters is that they are meant for one person in particular. The letter that “This Tilting World” offers is carefully crafted, laced with beautiful prose, but, unfortunately, intended for the select few who enjoy murky plot structures and poetry-prose hybrids.