Sick bird of youth

by Tze Ming Mok / 07 August, 2004

Prolific Belgian novelist Amélie Nothomb is a former anorexic who is reported to drink cup after cup of strong tea until she vomits, before sitting down to write. It is perhaps through this method that she has given us The Book of Proper Names - a novel bursting with bodily obsessions such as disgust, desire, beauty and power. Nothomb already has a substantial cult following of Francophone literati and teen stalkers. This, her latest slim bestseller to be translated into English, is a queasy delight.

Another Nothomb novel features an obese and repulsive narrator who pleases himself by describing his revolting diet to his guests, until they vomit. Conversely, The Book of Proper Names follows the short life of a beautiful, anorexic, exceptionally monikered ballerina. Our heroine Plectrude is named by her teenage mother, who kills her husband and herself rather than allow her baby to be limited by anything as ordinary as a working-class existence or a name like "Joelle". Plectrude's Aunt Clémence also bears the seeds of this dangerous romanticism. She adopts Plectrude, and is instantly infatuated with the remarkably beautiful and self-possessed child. Clémence raises her as a coddled suburban princess, concealing the crazed, murderous circumstances of her birth. As Plectrude grows up, the inexorable effects of her beauty and talent allow her to be charmed into delusion and painfully realised anorexia.

The Book of Proper Names gives the wretched ghost-world of youth the sharp portraiture it deserves. Plectrude, like Peter Pan, is a serious outsider to adult society, but is handicapped by having to live in contemporary France rather than Never Never Land. She is a heroine both likely and unlikely, fortunate and doomed.

There is plenty of cute literary theory, but the book is a wickedly compulsive little read. Nothomb namechecks and draws upon the high absurd French tradition; meanwhile the revolting glee, viciousness, candour and spanking wit that she takes to childhood worlds and gendered fantasies carry strong flavours of Roald Dahl and Angela Carter. The novella's grim fairy-tale narrative is elemental and starkly absurd, all cool air and knowing glances drifting through a text of grimaces and raptures. Readers will be captivated by the exquisite fascism of romance - by its power to provoke revulsion or ecstasy, cause -violence and summon death.

It's a simply told story with no easy answers; the opposite of a feelgood feminist fairy-tale. Its take on victimhood and agency is merciless. But where Plectrude goes, the story goes - we must applaud this tale for being, like Plectrude, utterly Plectrude-centric. Nothomb is her only real competitor, and ultimately, her biggest adversary. The bile-filled Belgian propels the destructive narrative until her own authorship slyly assumes the proportions of a repeated assassination attempt. Will our heroine conquer her fate? Will she resist the murderous inclinations of the novel's tragic telos? The payoff is delectable - though it comes (of course) with an inconveniently lingering reflux.

THE BOOK OF PROPER NAMES, by Amélie Nothomb (Faber, $27).

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