Thursday, November 27, 2008

'The Book of Proper Names'

by Amélie Nothomb
(Original title: Robert Des Noms Propres)
Translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside
Fiction, 2002 (French), 2004 (English translation)
Faber and Faber, trade pb, 117 p.
The Book of Proper Names is the story of the hapless orphan girl, Plectrude. Raised by her aunt, and unaware of the dark secret behind her past, she is a troubled but dreamy child who is both blessed and cursed by her intoxicating eyes. Discovered to have enormous gifts as a dancer, she is accepted at Paris’s most prestigious ballet school, where she devotes herself to artistic perfection, until her body can take no more.
In a brilliantly succinct story of haunted adolescence and lost mothers, Nothomb propels the narrative forward until Plectrude is forced to take command of her own fate.
Amélie Nothomb is well known for her sometimes snarky, quirky, humourous style and I quite enjoyed it here. There were a few times throughout the book that I smiled at her turns of phrase. (This was translated from French but it read smoothly and of course I can’t say for sure, not having read it in the original, but it did seem well done and natural.)
This very fairy-tale like story kept my interest right up until the end where unfortunately Nothomb felt the need to suddenly insert herself into the story. Sometimes authors placing themselves in the narrative can be done very effectively but here it just jarred, it seemed so out of place with the way the rest of the story unfolded. So overall, I thought this was a sparse, enjoyable tale with a somewhat disappointing ending. But it has made me want to dig out the Ionesco play I have around here somewhere that I haven’t read in years and years, since in the book, Plectrude falls in love with his work.
She had often tried to read, but the books fell from her hands. Perhaps for every human being there is, within the universe of the written word, a work that will turn that person into a reader, if destiny permits. What Plato says about the loving half, that other part who is circling around somewhere and must be found if one is not to remain incomplete until one’s dying day, holds even more true where books are concerned.
'Ionesco is the author destined for me,' the girl thought. She drew considerable happiness from this, the intoxication that can come only from discovering a book that you love.
The only other book by Amélie Nothomb that I’ve read, and seen the film of, is Fear and Trembling (Stupeur et Tremblements) which was really quite amusing for me since it’s somewhat based on her experience working in a traditional, rather conservative Japanese company. I’m sure I’ll read more by Nothomb, in fact I have a book of hers in French but who knows when I’ll get up the motivation to tackle it, and I’d especially like to read more about her time in Japan.

Article in The Independent
Article in The Guardian online

My Rating: 3.5/5
(#50 for 2008, Orbis Terrarum Challenge, 2nds Challenge)

Also reviewed at:
Ex Libris
Bluestalking Reader
Reminder: If you have read and reviewed this title, let me know and I'll link to it here.


  1. I do not know if this will help. Amelie Nothomb's novels are all except for a couple, based somehow on her life. This is where she fnds her ideas and develops them into fiction. Reading about her hunger for writing might help, there are some books on her style outhere. I do not know of the titles, sorry. She is pretty much unique in her style.

  2. Sylvie - Thanks. I knew that most of her books were based on her life, fictional memoirs or whatever they're called. In this one I just thought she forced herself into the story unnaturally. Paul Auster writes himself into his work sometimes and in his case it works really well. Anyway, she does have a very unique style and I'm sure I'll read more. :)

  3. Not sure if Nothomb is for me, but I enjoyed your review and the links to the newspaper articles about her (I wish more bloggers would do that). Thanks!

  4. R-Lo - She definitely does have a unique style that I think isn't for everyone. Glad you liked the links to the articles. I'm always googling stuff on the author or book after I finish so a while ago I decided to include the links in my reviews. It's nice to know that someone is using them. :)

  5. I like the premise of the book but I don't know how I'd feel about the author all of a sudden in the book. I guess I'll have to read it and find out huh? :) Thank you for the review - I'll add it to my list!

  6. Iliana - I did like the story except for the bit at the end- you could just skip that page or so! It is a really slim book so wouldn't take much time to read. :)


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