Am?lie Nothomb writes short novels in French. She was born in Japan, the daughter of a diplomat, a Belgian diplomat. She writes about growing up and the struggle that some children undergo when trying to remain themselves in the face of conformity.
When I read her novel "Robert des noms propres" in Dutch translation (my Dutch is a lot better than my French) a couple of weeks ago, I didn't realise that several of her novels have also appeared in English, four of which have been translated by British translator Shaun Whiteside.
Nothomb manages to clear away the dross, and pare down the story. I have no experience of being a small girl, being male, nor has ballet ever interested me. But I read the above novel, available in English as "The Book of Proper Names" quite swiftly. It kept my attention and, equally importantly, gave the reader the idea that the author really felt for her characters. The whole novel is a battle between this small girl, gifted at ballet, poor at academic work, and her stepmother, who wants to pour her into some mould to compensate for her own inadequacies. She is shunned and revered at school, by turns. But her greatest disillusionment comes when she, a devoted ballet addict, joins a real ballet school and suffers from the martinet mentality prevalent there.
The "Robert" in the French title of the book refers to the series of dictionaries, like those by Chambers, Oxford or Websters in the English-speaking world. This poor girl is given an idiotic dictionary-derived name by her mother - Plectrude - which is yet another cross she has to bear, along with the fact that her mother dies within a few pages, in prison for killing her husband while pregnant with the girl we will know as Plectrude who moves in with her aunt.
This is not chick lit. This is real lit. I have only so far tackled one other of her books - "P?plum". It is different, but Nothomb again finds a weird and clever angle to the thread story: this time, it is a woman, lifted into the future by a mentor and guardian who disputes in a long verbal duel with the protagonist about the seemingly abstruse subject of whether Pompeii was destroyed or whether in fact the art and architecture there was preserved for posterity. Again, the subject may seem odd, but Nothomb has a way of making the dialogue engaging.
Available in English are the following (French publication; first English publication):
Loving Sabotage (1993; 2000)
Human Rites (1994; 2005)
The Stranger Next Door (1995; 1996)
Fear and Trembling (1999; 2002)
The Character of Rain (2000; 2003)
The Book of Proper Names (2003; 2004)
The Life of Hunger (2004; 2006)
Sulphuric Acid (2005; 2007)
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