No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, October 12, 2007

#62: The Ninth Life of Louis Drax -- Liz Jensen

I'm not most kids. I'm Louis Drax. Stuff happens to me that shouldn't happen, like going on a picnic where you drown. Just ask my maman ...
Louis Drax is French, accident-prone, fond of reading, very intelligent, and in therapy for some behavourial problems. On his ninth birthday, his parents take him on a picnic. By nightfall, his father is missing, his mother is hysterical and Louis himself has been pronounced dead.

Which makes his narration of half of this novel slightly spooky.

Louis (unaccountably still alive, or alive again, though it's impossible to rouse him from his coma) starts off with a potted history of his short but fraight life. Falling in front of the metro, cot death, salmonella and tetanus and botulism, a dynasty of hamsters all named Mohammed ... There's a hint that not all Mohammeds have died a natural death: "you can drop something heavy on him, like volume three of the encyclopédie medicale or Harry Potter et l'Ordre du Phénix. Just as long as you don't make a mess". As his mother Nathalie says, "If you were a cat, Louis, you'd have used up eight of your lives by now. One for each year. We can't go on like this."

She's probably crying. Boys shouldn't make their mamans cry, repeats Louis.

Hence Fat Perez, the psychiatrist, who has his hands full with Louis, who is an exceptionally convincing eight-year-old boy, with a voracious enthusiasm for weird facts, spit, blood, rude names for people and complete contempt for stupid adults. Fat Perez doesn't seem to make much progress, but then Louis is a difficult child.

Cue the second narrator, Dr Dannachet, who takes over Louis' case at his clinic in Provence. A married man, he nevertheless finds himself attracted to Natalie, Louis' mother, and when it seems as though Louis' father -- still apparently on the run -- is a threat to Natalie, Dr Dannachet promises to protect her.

Only gradually (and extremely unwillingly) does he begin to question her account of events at the picnic.

Louis is in the dark, but he's not alone. The ghoulish figure of Gustave -- whose head is wrapped in bloody bandages -- addresses him as 'Young Sir' and shows more interest and understanding of Louis and his predicament than anyone else ... well, anyone outside Louis's head. And Gustave, in the end, makes the difference to Louis.

Some parts of the novel (Dannachet's home life, Perez' reaction to Louis' 'accident', Natalie's past) seem almost too lightly sketched, but there's enough solid meat there to support the story. It's a story of many layers: an attempted-murder mystery; a child's interpretation of overheard, half-understood accusations; a doctor's willingness to take a chance that could ruin him professionally; a ghoulish tale of life inside Louis' head. And it's a difficult novel to write about because unpicking even one of those layers would reveal too much about the rest. I did feel, though, that it was a more tightly-plotted, less rambling novel than the more recent My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time.

"If you make a choice, and it's wrong," says Nathalie, "you have to live with it. Everyone has to live with the consequences."

Apparently the film rights have already been snapped up, and it's to be directed by Anthony Minghella (The English Patient I wonder if it'll get a UK release?

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