It takes a special deftness to make an estate agent appealing enough to carry a novel. As it turns out, that's the least of the feats pulled off by the French writer Agnès Desarthe in The Foundling, a book whose mysteries unfurl kaleidoscopically to take in love, loss and parenthood, along with France's fraught relationship with its Second World War past.
Desarthe's fourth novel to be translated into English centres on 56-year-old Jerome, an inscrutable man whose thoughts "stop just short" of forming sentences. He is fully himself only on his secret woodland jaunts, which he spends "scratching at the earth in the undergrowth, listening to tree trunks creaking, studying stripes of sunlight on tree roots, and gathering the dew collected in the crook of a leaf to drink it drop by drop." Animals do not run from him, and sometimes he'll drop down on all fours and growl very softly.
Women have always fallen for him, too. When he first met his wife, she thought he looked like Clint Eastwood. Nowadays, she lives in a sunnier part of the country while he takes care of their teenage daughter, Marina, and tends his lack-lustre real-estate business.
But when Marina's boyfriend is killed in a motorcycle accident, Jerome is sent reeling by his inability to shield her from grief. It also makes him realise how estranged he is from his own emotions. Delving into his past in search of some similar loss to draw upon, he can summon up only the funerals of his parents.
This deeply humane tale is really a ghost story
They weren't his real parents, for Jerome was a foundling. As a toddler, he materialised in a forest while Annette and Gabriel were taking a stroll. You'll just have to imagine yourself a Mowgli or a Tarzan, Annette tells him when he grows old enough to question his earliest years.
It's a mystery freighted with allusions to fairy-tales and myths. In a European context, it carries other associations, too, recalling the refugee children who crept from forests at the war's end. Jerome is not one of those orphans, but in a sidelong way that is characteristic of this darkly enchanted novel, those resonances will prove crucial.
Meanwhile, Marina's best friend is troubled by visions, Jerome fears he's unearthed a gruesome clue to the disappearance of another teenager, and a gangly Scotswoman and a dapper ex-detective both seem to have romantic designs on him.
Desarthe is fond of anatomising words and it is to translator Adriana Hunter's credit that this is conveyed in English showing, for example, how the way that the letter "o" in the word "roast" is uttered, for instance, can communicate volumes.
Similarly, Jerome's own name turns out to hold the heartbreaking answer to the novel's central mystery, which ultimately is not his origins but the origins of the couple who raised him.
Though rich in riddles, this deeply humane tale is really more of a ghost story. As the retired inspector tells Jerome: "You were haunted. And how couldn't you be? We all are, one way or another, whether we like it or not. It's part of our country, our generation."