erasing clouds

Book Review: Amélie Nothomb's The Book of Proper Names

by anna battista

Those of you who still haven't heard of Amélie Nothomb are really out of touch with the world of contemporary literature. Nothomb is in France what Harry Potter is in Great Britain, only she's real. Born in Kobe, Japan, in 1967, she lived in Asia throughout her childhood and, at seventeen, she went back to her home country, Belgium. Her life is shrouded in legends: apparently she was an alcoholic at three and an anorexic at seventeen. Now, we can't vouch for this, but we can vouch for her success, we can indeed date the first one to the early '90s, when her career as a writer began with the novel Hygiène de l'assassin (Assassin's Hygiene, 1992). The apex of her success arrived in 1999, with Stupeur et tremblements (Fear and Trembling), which sold almost 450,000 copies, won France's Grand Prix de l'Académie Française and was adapted for the screen last year by Alain Corneau. So why do people in France (and actually around the world since her novels are translated in something like 30 languages) love her? The answer is simple, Amélie Nothomb writes with the innocence of the main character in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film Amélie, the sanguine depths of Angela Carter, the gothic fantasy of Tim Burton's movies and the perversion of a psychopath.

In her novel The Book of Proper Names (Robert des noms propres), recently translated in English and published by Faber and Faber, we are invited to read what superficially looks like an innocent fairy tale, though deep down is a complex tragedy about growing up. The novel revolves around the life of Plectrude, a girl born in jail from a mother who killed her husband over an argument on how to name the baby and who commits suicide soon after the child is born. Raised by her aunt Clemence and uncle Danis, Plectrude is desperately spoiled by the former, who firmly believes her niece is a little fairy, dresses her in wonderfully coloured dresses and feeds her with the most fantastic food.

At school Plectrude is a bit of a cross-over between a catastrophic failure and a bright young genius, her real passion in life being not school, but ballet. She's such a talented dancer that she manages to enter the most prestigious ballet school in Paris, but things aren't that rosy there. Kids are encouraged to starve themselves and dance for hours on end and soon Plectrude becomes an anorexic and as a result of decalcification of her bones, she breaks a leg. The world of our heroine soon starts crumbling: doctors tell her she won't be able to dance anymore, her aunt starts hating her and falls ill since Plectrude didn't manage to become a ballet dancer, a dream that was actually hers since she was a child, and she is revealed the fate of her parents.

In an attempt to follow her mums' destiny, Plectrude falls pregnant and decides to commit suicide when she's nineteen, though she's saved at the last minute by a boy she had a crush on when she was at school. Plectrude will later on become a singer, changing her name to Robert. If you think the dark shadow looming upon the novel is finally dispersed, beware, there is going to be a twist in the tail of the story which will also involve Amélie Nothomb herself (and here's when the novel becomes a pure work of meta-fiction, since in real life Nothomb is a friend of Belgian singer Robert and also helped her writing her latest album Celle qui tue).

Fantastical, disturbing and surreal The Book of Proper Names is a tragicomic compendium of adolescent obsessions and fears, love, hate and the result of the damages parents can do to their kids. ChickLit is dead, long live to the 'Nothombophile' cult.

{Amélie Nothomb's Fear and Trembling and The Character of Rain will be published by Faber&Faber in August.}

Issue 24, June 2004

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds