(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.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.)
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.
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.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.
'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.
Article in The Independent
Article in The Guardian online
My Rating: 3.5/5
(#50 for 2008, Orbis Terrarum Challenge, 2nds Challenge)
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