Certain aspects of novelist Amélie Nothomb’s work are utterly predictable: for example, every fall a new novel (usually around 150 pages long) appears without fail, with a portrait of the author (easily identifiable by her pale face and long black hair) on the front cover. The subject matter of each new novel, however, is impossible to foresee. In the last few years, we have seen a male narrator who takes on the identity of a man who dies in his apartment (Les Faits du Prince) and an obese American soldier based in Iraq who corresponds with the novelist (Une Forme de Vie). This year’s offering, Tuer le Père (Killing the Father), Nothomb’s 20th in as many years, features a gifted young card player who is taken in and trained by a magician.
As the title suggests, it revolves around the Freudian notion that to survive all men need to “kill” their father. The young Joe Whip, who has been abandoned by his mother, takes revenge on his substitute father, Norman, by learning all his magic skills and using them to amass a fortune cheating at cards. He also aims to seduce Norman’s partner, Christina, who is a fire dancer. The climactic scene at the Burning Man festival is both horrifying and impressive for the poise of Nothomb’s description as the coldly analytical Joe pretends to be tripping on LSD in hopes of losing his virginity with Christina. The twist in the tale is well worth waiting for.
The bizarre situations Nothomb concocts may at first glance be alienating (surely only a limited number of readers would be interested in following the story of an asocial card player?), but she has an extraordinary ability to treat grand themes (love, separation, betrayal, honor, chance, destiny) with a lightness of touch and to make one care for her protagonists without becoming sentimental about them.
While some novelists wear the months spent researching their projects very heavily (often including pages of dense historical background), Nothomb, who must have had to research her subject very carefully, manages to paint a vivid picture without trying her reader’s patience with unnecessary factual details. The clarity of her spare prose also helps make for a riveting read; I began and finished this book in a single sitting.Favorite