The first lines of Le quai de Ouistreham (which means “the Ouistreham quay”) immediately announce the general theme of the book. “The ‘credit crunch’. That’s what everyone is talking about, without really knowing what to say about it, or how to approach the subject.”
However, though the credit crunch is a subject that hovers in your mind throughout the whole book, what this piece of investigative journalism really is about is how people at the bottom of the social ladder, with no diplomas or valuable work experience, deal with unemployment while still desperately trying to get a job.
Photo: Courtesy of Les Carnets
The author, French journalist Florence Aubenas, has done it all. She covered stories in Rwanda, was a war correspondent in Iraq, where she was abducted for six months in 2005, and wrote pieces on Algeria, Kosovo and Afghanistan. The last thing anyone expected her to do was to move to a remote city in Normandy, Caen, and go undercover as a 40-year-old inexperienced and unemployed person, without changing her name or fearing she would somehow be recognized.
In the book’s preface, she says: “I decided to go with the flow. I didn’t know what I’d become and that’s what was interesting for me”. She decided she would stop the investigation as soon as she would find a job with a stable contract.
During this adventure, everywhere she went, Florence Aubenas assured any potential employer that she was “ready for everything” and would “do anything”. As a woman in her late forties though, and without any real qualifications or work abilities, she quickly found out that her personal file was at the bottom of the pile.
She began the whole experience with an internship which was supposed to teach her how to get a job, but her personal guide counselor soon told her that, in her situation, her best bet was to try and get “hours” (calling it a job would be overstating it…) as a cleaning lady. The book portrays the journey of someone who lives pay cheque to pay cheque, constantly worrying if she will be able to pay rent next month, and losing hours of sleep preparing for job interviews, or simply because sleeping has become a luxury she can’t afford.
The beauty of this book is that you read it as you would read a novel. Everything is described in such detail (the people, the landscapes, her thoughts, conversations she had) that you are transported to another world, the world she wanted people (especially in France) to become aware of. It is, however, the crudest of realities, making you feel a natural empathy not only for everyone the author meets, but strangely enough for the author herself.
It makes you think, “Why would someone put him/herself through that misery?” But then again, that is what real investigative journalism is about, and Florence Aubenas carries out this research gracefully, with real, raw emotions that have an impact on her just as much as they will on the reader.
The very last lines of the book, when the author goes back to Caen to tell the people to which she related the most what her real purposes were, read: “It was a real reunion, with laughs and memories under the neon light of the corridor. I try to sweep under the rug the moment when this bubble of intimacy will burst until I can’t anymore.”
Photo: Courtesy of Les Voies de la Liberté
She also knows that what she found out and everything she went through is discouraging information for all unemployed people, or people with no qualifications to get a real job. But why close our eyes and pretend not to see what is really going on?
That’s the thing about Florence Aubenas: she doesn’t just report, she walks in people’s shoes and witnesses what it’s really like to constantly live hanging by a thread. She tells the truth. And isn’t that what every journalist should aim for?
“Blogger’s note”: I read the original version of the book, in French, but an English version, “The Night Cleaner”, is coming out this month. You can order it online for now but it will be availabe in stores soon.