Amélie Nothomb, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Japan, memoir, New York

‘The Life of Hunger’ by Amélie Nothomb


Fiction/memoir – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 160 pages; 2006. Translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside.

When I read Amélie Nothomb’s astonishingly profound Sulphuric Acid last September I was intrigued enough to seek out more work by this Belgian author. I managed to track down a slightly battered second-hand copy of The Life of Hunger and mistakenly thought it would be a straightforward account of the author’s battle with anorexia (well, with a title like that you would, wouldn’t you?). Instead it’s a kind of weird hybrid between memoir and fiction (or, as the Faber & Faber website describes it, an “odd memoir-cum-novel”) in which Nothomb tells her life story from the age of four to 21.

This isn’t as boring as one might expect, because Nothomb lead a fascinating childhood. Her father was a Belgian diplomat, so she got to live in various exotic places around the world. Indeed, she was born in Kobe, Japan, and then went on to live in China, New York, Bangladesh and Laos.

But the one constant in her life — aside from her elder sister to whom she feels especially close — is her hunger which is at odds with her personal affluence:

As far back as my memories go, I have always been dying of hunger. […] I might add that my hunger should be understood in the broadest sense of the word: had it only been hunger for food, it might not have been so serious. But is it possible only to be hungry for food? Is there a hunger of the belly that is not also a sign of a generalised hunger? By hunger, I mean that terrible lack within the whole being, the gnawing void, the aspiration not so much to a utopian plentitude as to simple reality: where there is nothing, I beg for there to be something.

Reading between the lines I suspect that Nothomb’s fierce intelligence lead her to feel, think and experience things more deeply that other people. Indeed, by the time she’s a teenager her hunger manifests itself in anorexia, which she welcomes because it “kept me in an ice age in which feelings ceased to grow.” She adds: “It was a respite: I stopped hating myself.”

(In quite a revealing article in The Independent, published in 2006, she’s quoted as saying “I’m totally cured. I eat in a strange way, but I enjoy it. Everything became well when I finally understood that I enjoy being hungry. Normally, I only eat in the evening. It’s wonderful. It’s like an orgy!”)

Unfortunately, any deeper exploration of the disease is absent, as Nothomb skips over her two-and-a-half year battle in just a handful of pages. In fact, much of the book is like this. An incident in the sea when she lived in Bangladesh seems so fleeting, so superficial, I’m not sure what to make of it: was she molested by four men, or was she not?

This floating, dream-like quality to the writing is a double-edged sword: beautiful to read but too vague to interpret factually.

There’s also a slightly precocious tone to the writing, and I can imagine that probably reflects what Nothomb was like as a child. (There are, in fact, several references to her early intelligence in the book. But the one that stands out most is a teacher at the French Lycee in New York calling Nothomb’s mother to say “Your daughter’s brain is overdeveloped. Do you think she suffers?”)

On the whole, this is a quirky, somewhat off-beat memoir, one that might mean more to those who have read all of Amélie Nothomb’s back catalogue, rather than the single volume I have managed to enjoy. I guess that means I just need to read more of her work… and with at least 10 translated into English I won’t be short of choices.

10 thoughts on “‘The Life of Hunger’ by Amélie Nothomb”

  1. Most of what I have read about anoxercia is that the person is trying to create control out of chaos.
    I was hoping her work would give more insight on what she considered chaos (the constant moving and having to make new friends at school? the outside world? the actual traveling – which can confuse a child? her wanting to behave or live than what’s expected of a diplomat’s child?)


  2. I haven’t read this one yet but I have read ‘Fear and Trembling’ by Amelie Northomb which I found interesting. I got the feeling that it was slightly autobiographical and it made me realise that she had lead an interesting life.


  3. Amelie Nothomb is one of the authors who is definitely on my TBR pile, has indeed been there several years, but whom I have yet to read. I have a novel of hers entitled Antichrista, which is about a friendship between two teenage girls with a real master-slave dimension to it. That sounded properly feasible to me! I’ll have to dig it out.


  4. The lack of in-depth exploration in anorexia here reminds me of the negligence of filling in details of Down syndrome in The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.
    That said, I would still keep an eye on this book for the armchair travel part. 🙂


  5. To be honest, there’s not much arm travel involved here, Matt. She does tell us a lot about New York and how exciting it was to live there, and she adores Japan, but you don’t really get to find out much about the other countries, aside from the fact that hunger is everywhere in Bangladesh.


  6. I have been astonished by the strange way she describes her terrible experience in Bangladesh. First, i thought it was fictional. But now i am not sure.
    She has been questionned about her approach of biography. She answered that everything she tells is true, but that she doesn’t tell everything. She added that one of the main problem she tries to solve, is to write the inexpressible, but with modesty. Modesty,litotes and understatement are the heart of her writing (as well as megalomania and some sort of delusions of grandeurs). In Tokyo’s fiancée, a delicious and charming love story, she describes what is certainly her first night of love with her fiancée: “he hugged me and didn’t let me go”. She will not tell more about it. In the same way, the agression is described with some detachment and distance, mixed this time with lyricism.


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