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).

Latest

Bill Ralston: We care for Grace Millane – we should care for the others too
100435 2018-12-15 00:00:00Z Crime

Bill Ralston: We care for Grace Millane – we shoul…

by Bill Ralston

The death of young tourist Grace Millane touches us all and is a call to action.

Read more
There are some striking similarities between Trump and Bill Clinton
100425 2018-12-15 00:00:00Z World

There are some striking similarities between Trump…

by Paul Thomas

Donald Trump may be a stark contrast to past Republican presidents but he bears comparison to a Democrat who survived impeachment.

Read more
Handmade gifts to treasure by New Zealand's talented craftspeople
100475 2018-12-15 00:00:00Z Style

Handmade gifts to treasure by New Zealand's talent…

by Kate Richards

These six makers share their love for the handmade.

Read more
Wellington's Lime e-scooter launch a sign of NZ's transport evolution
100488 2018-12-14 15:12:37Z Tech

Wellington's Lime e-scooter launch a sign of NZ's …

by Peter Griffin

Despite an initial flurry of ACC injury claims, transport sharing schemes look set to become part of the fabric of urban transport.

Read more
Win an Oscar Wilde prize pack, including books and double passes
100464 2018-12-14 10:08:08Z Win

Win an Oscar Wilde prize pack, including books and…

by The Listener

Enter and be in to win The Selfish Giant, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Happy Prince and Other Stories, and a double pass to The Happy Prince.

Read more
Trends in 2018: What Kiwis searched for this year
100457 2018-12-14 09:38:50Z Life in NZ

Trends in 2018: What Kiwis searched for this year

by RNZ

Here's what piqued our interest this year.

Read more
The curious connection between these new celebrity biographies
100448 2018-12-14 09:13:59Z Books

The curious connection between these new celebrity…

by Russell Baillie

Our reviewer wades into a flood of celebrity biographies and memoirs and finds they’re all connected in some way.

Read more
Hop to it: The best Kiwi beers for summer
99461 2018-12-14 00:00:00Z Dining

Hop to it: The best Kiwi beers for summer

by Michael Donaldson

Here's what to crack open on a hot day, from our very own Kiwi brewers.

Read more