Outrageous Clarity: The Fictions of Amélie Nothomb

With Amélie Nothomb’s latest, Strike Your Heart, the Francophone author of twenty-five books seems to have finally found some of the American attention she deserves. (I’m basing this assessment in part on the displays of almost every New York City bookstore’s front table.) Europeans have long been wild about Nothomb: The king of Belgium named her a baroness, she’s won several of the continent’s most respected literary prizes, and articles from overseas claim that fellow Parisians treat her like a celebrity whenever she ventures out in public. She is prolific, with a precise and distinctive voice that never fails to entertain, so the enthusiasm is warranted. But as someone who found Strike Your Heart less interesting than some of her earlier titles, I’d suggest it is not the best introduction. Here are some options that might have more impact.

Loving Sabotage (1993) translated by Andrew Wilson

There’s something rude about suggesting her superlative work came so early in her career—it was her second publication—but Loving Sabotage is unquestionably Nothomb’s masterpiece. The five-year-old daughter of a diplomat moves from Japan to China, drinks tea in the airport (“I have never had its equal.”) and promptly decides, while on “the first high” of her life: “I am going to do great things in this country.” Two years later, those feats consist of obsessive participation in an ongoing war between the children enrolled in a school for foreigners, who ally themselves based on their nationalities—“Racism?” the narrator anticipates the reader wondering. “No, geography”—and a similarly protracted and desperate series of bids to “count for something” in the eyes of a girl one year the narrator’s junior. Here, Nothomb’s signature tools (earnest hyperbole that verges on bombast, merciless humor, outrageous clarity) are honed to the sharpest possible points. It’s a story about a seven-year-old child who courts the favor of a six year old, and yet it achieves greater drama than most World War II documentaries.

The Life of Hunger (2004)

Nothomb’s post-Sabotage autofiction has a somewhat lighter touch, though her fierce commitment to the importance of every memory and impression from the past means the intensity never lessens for long. The Life of Hunger’s longer view—it spans over a decade of her young life—helps create a sense of durable development for the narrator; we recognize she is maturing as opposed to only changing. While The Character of Rain (2000), for instance, like Loving Sabotage, covers just a few years, The Life of Hunger synthesizes these earlier works into a cohesive picture of Amélie’s childhood as it bled into adolescence. Of particular impact is the rendering of a rape at age twelve, on which Nothomb spends only two pages, and which closes with her usual tactic of bracketing excruciating poignancy with self-deprecation: “Sections of nothing occupied my head. They have stayed there ever since.”

Tokyo Fiancée (2007) translated by Alison Anderson

Nothomb’s most successful work may be that which concerns her time spent in Japan. Fear and Trembling (1999), about a young Belgian woman’s attempt to climb the corporate ladder in Tokyo, sold half a million copies and won le Grand Prix du Roman. And it is indeed very funny. But I’m fonder by far of Tokyo Fiancée, an uncharacteristically gentle book in which Nothomb turns her sharp observational powers on a man so kind and so careful that her own gaze becomes tender. In her translated work, at least, it’s almost impossible to find a man who is convincingly excellent; Female characters can fall in love and be pursued by men, but their mates are essentially ciphers. Tokyo Fiancée’s Rinri is an anomaly in the Nothomb world: He has “nothing evil in him” and is “a stranger to evil,” and yet he interests Nothomb—and the reader—for the duration of an entire book.

The Stranger Next Door (1995) translated by Carol Volk

The Stranger Next Door is an exasperating, maddening horror story about a man who destroys his most precious relationships because he is powerless to overcome his neuroses. What sounds trite when described as universally human predicaments—the inability of our dearest intimates to truly understand us, and the limited influence we wield on our own characters—is made electric as it plays out inside this short book. The Stranger Next Door was the first of Nothomb’s novels to appear in English, and I regret that it seems not to have made much of an impression. Though she indulges in some detrimental excess, mostly with her cruel and muddled descriptions of the next-door neighbor’s wife, it is still an impressive, memorable effort. To say more may be to say too much, since suspense, here, is her writing’s finest product.

Antichrista (2003)

As with The Book of Proper Names (2002), Sulphuric Acid (2015), and Strike Your Heart, Antichrista is an allegory, and not an especially subtle one. (“A thought flashed through my head,” the narrator says, “Her name isn’t Christa! It’s Antichrista!”) What recommends it before those other three is an early scene in which Christa sexually assaults the narrator, Blanche, while insisting they undress together because “we’re just girls.” “I was sixteen years old,” Blanche explains. “I owned nothing. . . . I had no friends, no love. . . . My body was all I possessed.” The few pages depicting this humiliating and cruel encounter, and the way its impact echoes through the book, are masterful. Nothomb gives her narrator the intelligence to describe exactly what damage has been done by something often dismissed as harmless play. (When Christa jokes with Blanche’s mother about what happened, only to be rewarded with the mother’s laughter, Blanche remains clear: “I knew that the scene had been horrible rather than comical.”) The story is a diagram of how bullies colonize the minds of those they abuse. In spite of her moral clarity regarding Christa’s many violations, Blanche still wonders at the book’s end, “What awful availability within my soul had let her come upon me as a conquered land?”

Charlotte Shane is a frequent