French novelist Amélie Nothomb writes heart attacks. By that I mean she's the author of a clutch of thin novels, all of which aim directly for the reader's heart.
Readers who love the alienation and dark comedy of Haruki Murakami would be wise to hunt down Nothomb's work; she's treading in the same forests as Murakami, but her steps are lighter and she covers more territory than the celebrated Japanese novelist. Her novel The Character of Rain is about the interior emotional life of very young children, and the things we lose as we age. Fear and Trembling is the story of a young Belgian woman (named Amélie) who moves to Japan and takes a job at an office and finds herself slowly driven insane with loneliness, even as she's surrounded by people.
Nothomb's books are slight — they feel more like tone poems than densely plotted novels — but when they connect with a reader, the experience is something akin to jumping into a puddle only to find yourself in water up to your chin. She's catching onto something elemental.
The latest novel by Nothomb, Strike Your Heart, is being published this month in America. Translated into English by Alison Anderson, Heart is a sour little concoction that eats away at some of the sturdiest pillars of modern society. It's all about the tremendous power of female jealousy.
In simple, blunt language, Nothomb lays out the story of a young woman named Marie who, from the moment she gives birth to a daughter, is overcome with envy:
Olivier placed the baby in her arms. She looked at her child and thought, "It's not my story anymore. It's yours."
The baby is named Diane, after the goddess of wisdom, and Marie can barely tolerate her. She demonstrates no warmth toward Diane, and the child grows up knowing that her mother doesn't like her very much. Soon enough, Diane is joined by a brother, Nicolas, who Marie adores. And then Marie becomes pregnant for a third time.
Nothomb explains that Diane spends a lot of time worrying about this third child. "All children pray," she writes, "although they do not necessarily know to whom."
As they could not exclude the possibility of a girl, Diane prepared a strategy: she would smother the poor little thing with affection to console her for her mother's coldness. Because it might be too much to hope that the unfortunate child would display her older sister's fortitude from the outset. Moreover, the newcomer would have to put up with the mother's marked preference for her older brother: how could she bear such an injustice?
Nothomb's sentences, as relayed by Anderson, are staccato and mildly arrhythmic. They don't expand the story so much as accrue, one on top of the other. The hypnotic allure of the short and simple sentences gives Heart the ghostly energy of a fairy tale. Other writers would likely have stretched Diane's coming of age into chapters of sprawling prose. Nothomb tidily does away with puberty in just about one paragraph:
In high school Diane saw her classmates give themselves over to the first throes of love. From one day to the next, boys and girls who had spent years playing ball together began to look at each other differently. At first, there were ties of evangelical simplicity. Then came the experience of breaking up, which inaugurated the era of complexity. What broke their hearts was not the end of the love story, but the speed with which an ex fell in love again. Some of them, out of pure diplomacy, played close to the vest. The situation became Machiavellian. You no longer knew where you stood.
Rarely has anything so complicated as adolescence felt so straightforward as when it's filtered through Nothomb's keyboard.
As Diane ages, Heart tracks her life mostly through the friendships she makes with other women — and all those friendships are guided and informed by her chilly relationship with her own mother. These are facets of experience that have not often been captured in fiction. Rarely have I read a book that so perfectly captures the terrifying power and self-destructive energy of jealousy between women, and never have I read a book that lays out so plainly the nakedly distrustful relationship between a mother and her child.
Some of Diane's adult relationships are perfectly healthy. Other relationships, like one with a manipulative mentor, seem to be echoes of Diane's experiences with Marie. Things get worse until finally someone gets murdered.
Heart, shockingly, is Nothomb's 25th novel. And unlike some writers who become more bloated and less essential with each passing book, Nothomb seems to write more and more like she has nothing to lose. Heart feels like the kind of book you write when you don't care who you shock.
That's a welcome development. Nothomb isn't playing Diane's story for cheap thrills; she feels genuinely compassionate for her protagonist's upbringing. But she also exults in her ability to portray the ugliest emotions of women on the page with little or no judgment. She makes room for Marie to be a bad mother, and for Diane to resent her mother for her choices.
This isn't a story of forgiveness, or of family bonds. Instead, Nothomb is telling a story of how to hate, and how not to let that hatred consume you. At the heart of the novel, that story is a kind of grace.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant