Monday, April 3, 2017

The Book of Proper NamesThe Book of Proper Names by Amélie Nothomb
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"But being ten years old is the best thing that can happen to a human being."

Regrettably The Book of Proper Names (2002), my seventh short novel by Amelie Nothomb, does not come close to the greatness of her masterpiece Loving Sabotage or two other outstanding novels The Character of Rain and Hygiene and the Assassin. So while I really wanted to love this book by one of my favorite authors it has left me feeling less than enthusiastic.

The protagonist of the story is a girl named Plectrude, so named by her mother to guarantee the child an extraordinary life. The mother's plan succeeds but probably not in the way she wanted. Plectrude is born in jail where her young mother awaits judgment for killing her equally young husband. Plectrude is adopted by her aunt when the mother commits suicide and the girl's name seems to work its spell: the aunt is totally and completely enchanted with her new charge. Plectrude is trained to become a ballet dancer - the best of the best - and we follow the girl's education in a Paris ballet school. If this brief synopsis sounds a little demented it's because the story is indeed a rather demented fairy tale for grown-ups. Nothing's wrong with this, of course.

The main problem with the novel is its lack of focus. It reminds me of improvised stories that parents produce to put their children to sleep. They just keep talking, making up the tale on the spot, inventing plot twists that lack any conceptual continuity: the sleepy children will not notice anyway. Ms. Nothomb's sweet yet incisive study of childhood turns into theory of ballet, the psychology of characters is subject to drastic changes, observations from childhood are mixed with ruminations on Moliere's The Misanthrope and the author indulges in moralizing in an incongruous metafictional context.

I am sad that Ms. Nothomb's extraordinary talent for capturing children's beliefs, behaviors, and rituals is not used with a greater sense of purpose. The novel could well have been an ode to childhood with its glories and horrors, and instead feels like an inconsequential trifle, its potential damaged by bracketing the fascinating childhood story between two sets of sensational yet trite events. There is a lot of good stuff in the novel: the message about lunacy of parents who avenge their own life failures by trying to live vicariously through their children, or the astute observation how children tend to affix reality to words - since words refer to reality, reality should refer to words, they seem to reason. The snowman and corpse episode is recounted so vividly that I almost remember it from my own early life. Nor can one forget the magnificent metafictional twist that concludes the novel. Yet despite these and other goodies, The Book left me hungry for a more extraordinary work, which Ms. Nothomb had amply demonstrated in the past that she can produce.

Two and a half stars.

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