Amélie Nothomb conquered my reader’s heart with her wonderful novel Stupeur et Tremblements (Fear and Trembling) and has – with a couple of exceptions – been very dear to me as a writer. Her unique voice (and the fact that I can work up enough gumption to read a French book when it comes to her) has never let me down and while she’s taken one huge misstep with Sulphuric Acid, it was easily forgiven. As all of Nothomb’s novels, this one is really short, more novella than novel. Usually, she uses the lack of pages to show her strengths in story-telling but lately, I feel she’s been slacking and her stories get boring and unmemorable.
by: Albin Michel
my rating: 3/10
first sentence: Le 6 octobre 2010, L’Illégal fêtait ses dix ans.
Joe is 14 years old when his mother politely throws him out. He goes to live in Reno, learning card tricks. Soon he’s picked up by Norman Torance and his girlfriend Christina who take him into their home and treat him like a son. Growing up with them, he develops a severe crush on his surrogate mother and learns all there is to know about magic tricks and sleight of hand from Norman.
Mademoiselle Nothomb, I am not impressed. Joe, unlike most of the author’s protagonists, does not feel real so his journey was doomed for me from the get-go. The things that happen to him feel equally as unbelievable as they are boring. Norman becomes a father-figure to Joe but instead of showing that fragile relationship through one of the many conversations, Nothomb just hammers it into her readers by bluntly stating facts. Even when finally some conflict appears – namely Joe’s crush on Christina – the author manages to play it down so much that I didn’t really care if Joe managed to secude her or destroy her relationship with Norman.
The theme of this book is magic, artistics, players and sleight of hand – while these are all things that I find highly interesting to read about and that offer many possibilities for great writing, Amélie Nothomb chose not to take that opportunity. There is no magic in this book, the writing is just there, it doesn’t leave any kind of impression. Then again, she throws in passages that instantly strike a chord with me and make me reminisce of “good old Amélie” and the wonderful books she’s written.
Les fire dancers n’ont pas créé leur art pour le plaisir un peu vulgaire de faire du trop difficile. Il y a une logique profonde à associer ces deux dieux, la danse et le feu. Regarder de grands danseurs provoque le même émoi que regarder une bûche enflammée : le feu danse, le danseur brûle.
That’s what I expect from a Nothomb book. Concise writing and a story that combines plot with the author’s thoughts on certain themes. Unfortunately, that is the only quote worth mentioning in this story.
Now, it wasn’t all bad. The ending does hold a little plot twist and while it may come as a surprise to some, the lack of interest in the characters left me strangely unemotional about it. This has been a trend in Nothomb’s last few books and I certainly hope she’ll get back on her writer’s feet. Otherwise I’m just going to have to re-read her older works and ignore whatever comes out next.
THE GOOD: Quick read, I improved my French.
THE BAD: If you don’t care for the characters, might as well not read the book. Lame story, not very well-told.
THE VERDICT: No need to read this. If you want Nothomb, pick up one of her older books. You won’t regret it.