Review: Clearly Invisible in Paris by Koel Purie Rinchet
A novel about the lives of four women who are all strangers to Paris, a glamorous city with a seedy underbelly, that tests the protagonists and their friendships
Neera, the Indian wife of one of France’s most famous producers, walks home after making an illicit purchase. In a subway close by, Violet, a Senegalese transwoman makes her way to a man she has long admired. Dasha, a Russian model looking to make her big break, has just posted a photo on social media that could potentially end her career. In a small café, Rosel, the newly escaped Filipino domestic worker, has a poignant conversation on illegal immigrants and how hope is the second strongest emotion after survival. Thus, begins Clearly Invisible in Paris, Koel Purie Rinchet’s novel about the lives of four fierce women, each a stranger in Paris and, perhaps, even to themselves.
The novel has a strong opening in vignettes peppered with the finer details of fashion, architecture and the walkways of Paris. We see Rinchet’s protagonists come to life through many handbags, furs, gowns, heels, songs and makeup. Then, the unlikeliest of scenarios brings these women together and, bound by the common elements of pain, injustice and the fear of not belonging, they forge close bonds.
Early on, two of Rinchet’s protagonists recreate their identities – Rosel escapes her employer’s domestic prison while Violet chooses to have her gender identity reassigned. In the course of the book, all four protagonists choose to reinvent their futures by refusing to accept their present. In many ways, Paris, for all of them becomes a clean slate, a chance to start anew without the baggage of abusive fathers, missing family members, violence, poverty and persecution.
Rinchet delves into each of her protagonists with a practised eye; slowly turning up the heat. Like a child with a magnifying glass burning down an ant hill, she sets out to draw these characters closer to each other as their lives become increasingly intolerable. While their pasts are shrouded in darkness, the city tests them and their new friendships in no small way. Rosel is the victim of a hate attack; Violet and Dasha resort to making money online after they lose their jobs during the pandemic. While all this serves to bring the group together, what keeps them that way despite the incessant squabbling are their acts of redemption: Rosel’s attempts to save Violet, Violet’s handling of Neera, Dasha and Benjy’s attempts to rescue Violet after her mental breakdown, and Neera’s care of Rosel after the attack. What sets them apart is that all of them feel strongly and fiercely.
From picturesque evocations of the architecture of The Number 36 building where all the principal characters live, to the city’s history and its renovation under Baron Haussmann, this novel is also an intimate look at Paris and the French. Through Dasha’s point of view, especially, the reader gets a front-row seat in the world of Parisian fashion and witnesses its existential crisis during the pandemic. The defence of haute couture as art in the wake of that global crisis befuddles her as it does others.
While Rinchet’s omniscient narrator shows the reader that the stories we tell ourselves are just as important as the ones we tell others, the writing often devolves into extended analyses of reasoning, motive and psyche. This forces the reader to become a passive spectator instead of an active observer and deprives them of the opportunity to arrive at their own conclusions. It superimposes a singular view on a novel with the potential to present multiple perspectives. In parts, that voice-in-the-head form of meta-commentary also encumbers the book’s pace.
Still, the end is rewarding. Clearly Invisible in Paris touches on the joys of unexpected friendships set against the backdrop of that famous city. At its heart is an examination of the joy that emerges from being accepted for who you truly are.
Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha