The Art of Losing

Alice Zeniter

Translated by Frank Wynne
See more book details
04 February 2021
480 pages

'Remarkable . . . a novel about people that never loses its sense of humanity.' Sunday Times

'A deeply human text about the ghosts of identity and decolonization.' Vanity Fair

Naïma has always known that her family came from Algeria – but up until now, that meant very little to her. Born and raised in France, her knowledge of that foreign country is limited to what she’s learned from her grandparents’ tiny flat in a crumbling French sink estate: the food cooked for her, the few precious things they brought with them when they fled.

On the past, her family is silent. Why was her grandfather Ali forced to leave? Was he a harki – an Algerian who worked for and supported the French during the Algerian War of Independence? Once a wealthy landowner, how did he become an immigrant scratching a living in France?

Naïma’s father, Hamid, says he remembers nothing. A child when the family left, in France he re-made himself: education was his ticket out of the family home, the key to acceptance into French society.

But now, for the first time since they left, one of Ali’s family is going back. Naïma will see Algeria for herself, will ask the questions about her family’s history that, till now, have had no answers.

Spanning three generations across seventy years, Alice Zeniter’s The Art of Losing tells the story of how people carry on in the face of loss: the loss of a country, an identity, a way to speak to your children. It’s a story of colonization and immigration, and how in some ways, we are a product of the things we’ve left behind.

Translated from the French by Frank Wynne.

This book is supported by the Institut français (Royaume-Uni) as part of the Burgess programme.

France, like Britain, hardly lacks for migrant fictions now, but Zeniter traces their lonely passage exceptionally well. Her fine-grained scenes unroll into a grander historical canvas. The translator Frank Wynne, in another stellar outing, stylishly catches both her intimate and epic notes . . . With its panoramic vision and generous spirit, The Art of Losing finds shoots of hope amid the stony landscapes of the past.


Remarkable . . . Because it deals with immigration, nationalism and Islam, it speaks urgently to our time . . . The moral weight of [Naima’s] story is won through the superbly handled earlier sections dealing with the complexities of Ali’s loyalties during the war of independence, as Zeniter evenly catalogues the atrocities on both sides . . . This is a novel about people that never loses its sense of humanity.

Sunday Times, 'Translated Book of the Month'

This pacy, complex piece of historical fiction (which was nominated for France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt) explores the tangled reality of identity.

New Statesman