20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Behrouz Boochani, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Papua New Guinea, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’ by Behrouz Boochani

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 374 pages; 2018. Translated from Farsi by Omid Tofighian

To be honest, I don’t know where to begin with “reviewing” this book. I read it more than a month ago now, and every time I sit down to try to commit my thoughts to this blog the words won’t come.

It’s an astonishing and lyrical account of a cruel and inhumane life at the hands of a cruel and inhumane government. It makes for very powerful reading, but it also serves to make the reader feel powerless. I have not been able to shake the uncomfortable fug that enveloped me as I read this.

For those of you who don’t know, No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is a true-life account of what it is like to be caught up in Australia’s shameful offshore immigration detention system. It was written by Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist, poet, scholar and filmmaker, who has been detained on Manus Island since 2013.

Boochani’s tale, tapped out on a mobile phone, text message by text message, and smuggled out via WhatsApp, was translated from Farsi by Omid Tofighian, and it is bookended by a foreword by Australian author Richard Flanagan, a lengthy translator’s introduction explaining how the book came into being and a similarly lengthy essay by the translator at the very end.

It first came to prominence earlier this year when it won the Victorian Prize for Literature — the single most valuable literary award in the country — and the Prize for Non-Fiction at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2019. But since then it has also won the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, the Australian Book Industry’s non-fiction book of the year and Australia’s National Biography Award.

Ironically, Boochani has not been able to accept any of those awards in person. Although the Manus Island detention centre closed in 2017, he has remained on the island since then — effectively stateless.

An collaborative memoir

The memoir — which Tofighian describes as “literary experimentation” and a “collaborative effort between author, translator, consultants and confidants” — reads very much like an adventure tale to begin with, before morphing into an almost Kafa-esque depiction of prison life.

It charts how Boochani decided to flee Iran when the offices of Werya, the Kurdish magazine he co-founded and produced, was raided by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which arrested 11 of his colleagues. Fortunately, he was not in the office that day. In fact, he never went back. Instead, he went into hiding and eventually made his way to Indonesia, with a view to making a perilous ocean crossing to seek asylum in Australia.

But things did not go as planned. The Indonesian boat he was on, overcrowded with some 60 asylum seekers, was intercepted by the Australian Navy.  Everyone on board was taken to Christmas Island.

Early in the morning, at six, guards came in like debt collectors and heaved us out of bed. Within a few minutes they took us to a tightly confined cage. It is now almost two hours since they brought us here. These hours have been really tough. It is hard being imprisoned…being locked in a cage. We have now been in prison on Christmas Island for a whole month. It is hard being a prisoner.

From there, Boochani was moved to the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, a detention centre in Papua New Guinea operated by the Australian Government. He was stripped of his name and, like every other prisoner, became known as a number only.

I can’t believe what is happening to me /
All that hardship /
All that wandering from place to place /
All that starvation I had to endure /
All of it… /
So that I could arrive on Australian soil /
I cannot believe I am now being exiled to Manus /
A tiny island out in the middle of the ocean

The rest of the book is a mix of eloquent, heart-felt poetry (as per the quote above), bitter diatribes about his predicament and observational stories about fellow prisoners and guards told with amazing psychological insight. It’s an almost soporific account of day-to-day life on Manus and what happens — or doesn’t happen — on those endlessly long, supernaturally hot days in detention.

It brims with a slow-burning anger but it is also filled with perplexity and confusion, for how could a country, so highly regarded, so wealthy and free, treat innocent people in such a cruel, dehumanising way?

Boochani’s story is littered with suicides (much sought-after razor blades being the instrument of choice) and horrendous examples of already traumatised men, many fleeing persecution and certain death at the hands of authorities in their respective homelands, now enduring further mental anguish.

His account is a valuable insight into what happens to men, cut off from family and vital support networks, when they are subjected to inhumane treatment. He depicts the infighting, the emotional outbursts, the acts of moral cowardice, the riots, the hunger strikes, the way that certain people cling to their traditions and cultures when everything around them is foreign and frightening.

And he writes about his own inner turmoil, his desire to be alone, to not build allegiances with anyone, to quietly observe — and secretly document — all that he sees around him.

Compelling and confronting

There’s no doubting that No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is an extraordinary achievement. The contents are compelling and confronting, as is the story behind its creation.

Reading it is to become almost immune to the shock of all that Boochani endures. I suspect his writing, not only of this book but the many articles he has penned for the Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Financial Times et al while being imprisoned, has given him the creative outlet he needs to preserve his sanity — and his hope. He is a very cerebral person and a deep thinker.

It’s the kind of book that induces anger and shame in the reader. But it’s the sheer injustice of this system and the total lack of empathy and compassion towards our fellow humans that leaves me feeling most perplexed. I cannot comprehend it. Nor can I comprehend the waste — of time, of energy, of productive human lives — to maintain a policy that is so hostile and destructive.

Sadly, the people who need to read No Friend but the Mountains most — those that think asylum seekers should go back to where they come from, the policymakers, government officials and contractors that prop up this system — won’t read it. But if you’re an Australian, I almost think it’s your duty to do so, if only to know what is being done in your name.

For another take on this book, please see Bill’s review at The Australian Legend.

This half-hour documentary (above) is a moving account of how Boochani wrote the book and smuggled it out.

This is my 13th book for #20BooksOfSummer. I bought it on Kindle after it won the Victorian Prize for Literature, but the copy I actually read was borrowed from Fremantle Library. 

Anja Reich-Osang, Author, Book review, Germany, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text, true crime

‘The Scholl Case: The Deadly End of a Marriage’ by Anja Reich-Osang

The Scholl Case

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 224 pages; 2016. Translated from the German by Imogen Taylor. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A quiet, slow-moving and devastating examination of a 50-year marriage that ends in murder, Anja Reich-Osang’s The Scholl Case is a true crime book with a difference.

That’s because it doesn’t examine the crime, nor the resultant trial, in too much detail. What it does do is build up a thorough portrait of two wildly different individuals — including their troubled childhoods, their early struggles as a couple and their later success as social climbers —  whose life together wasn’t always as it seemed.

Brigitte Scholl was in her 60s and ran a well-regarded beauty salon in Ludwigsfelde, a small town to the south of Berlin. In late 2011 she disappeared while out walking her beloved dog in the woods near her home. A few days later Brigitte’s husband and adult son found her body in the woods. She had been strangled to death and was lying partially covered by moss in a shallow grave, her dog dead beside her.

Brigitte’s husband, Heinrich — once the most successful mayor in East Germany, a man who had done so much to create a thriving town after the fall of the Berlin Wall — was arrested and charged with her murder. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment.

Story of two people in a strange marriage

The book is based largely on observations made during an eight-month trial and extensive interviews with friends, relations and business colleagues of both Brigitte and Heinrich. The author also interviewed Heinrich after the trial was over and used letters and articles he had written about his life as material for the book.

What emerges is a painstaking portrait of a marriage between two people that might have looked idyllic from the outside but was actually quite troubled behind closed doors.

Heinrich had risen from humble roots (and a cold, unloving household) to become a successful local politician. To his constituents, he gave the impression of a decisive man always in charge, but at home he was hen-pecked and bullied.

Brigitte, who also came from a humble background and had suffered multiple tragedies in her life (including the suicide of her mother and, later, her sister), was regarded as something of a local beauty. She was well liked by the women of the town, many of whom were clients in her salon. But she was known to have a cruel streak.

A Swiss business partner of her husband was asked out of the blue whether he smoked; she’d noticed he had such yellow teeth. A local councillor was warmly advised to get the nape of his neck shaved. Her remarks were poison—small, well-measured injections, with which she could silence an entire table. Most of all, she liked to make a spectacle of her husband. If they had friends round and the men wanted to watch football, she would say that Heiner had to wash the car first. She’d get him to cut the hedge, and if she wasn’t satisfied with the result, she’d have the gardener in to redo it the next day. Customers overheard her ordering him to mow the lawn— ‘and that means now, not this evening.’

But Heinrich was no angel. When he retired he moved out of the family home and took up with a Thai prostitute. Together they lived in an apartment in Berlin, but she bled him dry and took up with someone else behind his back. Later, with his life and reputation in near ruin, Heinrich moved back in with Brigitte, who made him sleep in the basement with all his belongings.

To the outside world their marriage was back on, but it was clearly just a pretense. Brigitte was murdered just a little while later.

Compelling story but drags in places

As much as I love true crime books that use the devices of the novel to tell the story, I have to admit this one gets a bit bogged down in places. It’s a good read — compelling and well written in clear, concise prose — but it does tend towards the soporific. The picture of Heinrich’s life is so detailed that I’m not sure it adds terribly much to the overall story.

What I did find interesting was the trial itself (in Germany, criminal offences are tried by a judge, or panel of judges, not by a jury) and it was fascinating to find out how Heinrich’s behaviour changed in the immediate aftermath of the murder, which suggested he was either covering his tracks or befuddled by grief.

A lot of the evidence was circumstantial and witnesses were often confused or changed their story. Despite Heinrich’s son turning against him, Heinrich has always protested his innocence. Even the author, who takes great pains to keep herself out of the story, lets slip her own doubt at the very end of the book:

Is this an ice-cold murderer and a liar speaking? Or is it a madman? Or a victim of the justice system? Heinrich Scholl makes for a very convincing innocent.

The Scholl Case was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction in 2017.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Marceline Loridan-Ivens, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘But You Did Not Come Back’ by Marceline Loridan-Ivens

But you did not come backNon-fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 112 pages; 2016. Translated from the French by Sandra Smith.

With International Holocaust Remembrance Day just around the corner (on January 27), it seems fitting to review Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ But You Did Not Come Back, which I read at the tail end of last year.

This short, searing memoir, written as a letter from a daughter to her late father, is a powerful and moving read. It’s brevity means it can be easily read in a sitting, but it’s the kind of heart-rending, exquisitely composed story that stays with the reader long after you have reached the final page.

A haunting memoir

“I was quite a cheerful person, you know, in spite of what happened to us,” Marceline begins, as she pours out her heart to the man she would never know as an adult.

In 1944, when Marceline was 15 and her father was in his early 40s, the pair were arrested in occupied France and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where they were forcibly separated.

Afterwards, history linked those two places with a simple hyphen. Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some people just say Auschwitz, the largest death camp of the Third Reich. Time obliterates what separates us. It distorts everything. Auschwitz was built behind a little town; Birkenau was in the countryside. It was only when you went out through the large gate with your work detail that you could catch a glimpse of the other camp. The men from Auschwitz looked toward us and thought: That’s where our wives, our sisters, our daughters died; and that’s where we’ll end up, in the gas chambers. And I, I looked towards you and wondered, Is it a camp or a town? Has he gone to the gas chamber? Is he still alive? Between us stood fields, prison blocks, watchtowers, barbed wire, crematoriums, and above all else, the unbearable uncertainty of what was happening to us all. It was if we were separated by thousands of kilometres. The books say it was barely three.

Marceline’s story hinges on a single memory: of receiving a note from her father, smuggled to her in Birkenau from Auschwitz, which begins: “This is a message from your father.” It was their last ever communication.

Life after liberation

As well as detailing the horrors of the camp, But You Did Not Come Back is one of those rare Holocaust testimonies which looks at difficulties associated with repatriation and the aftermath of trauma. Marceline explains how hard it was to readjust to normal life when she returned home, how her little brother did not recognise her, how her mother asked her intrusive questions about whether she had been raped — “Are you still a virgin?” — and how she longed to sleep on the floor because “I couldn’t stand the comfort of a bed any more” but wasn’t  allowed.

In passing, she mentions two suicide attempts and then explains the irony of this: “[…] in the camp, I did everything I could to stay alive. Never allowed myself to believe that death would mean peace.”

Why was I incapable of living once I’d returned to the world? It was like a blinding light after months in the darkness. It was too intense, people wanted everything to seem like a fresh start, they wanted to tear my memories from me; they thought they were being rational, in harmony with passing time, the wheel that turns, but they were mad, and not just the Jews — everyone! The war was over, but it was eating all of us up inside.

Yet for all the sadness and the aching, haunting quality of Marceline’s story, it ends on a hopeful note: that writing to her father has helped “release what is clasped tightly to my heart”, that surviving the camp was worth it in the end.

If you liked this, you might also like:

This Place Holds No Fear by Monika Held: an extraordinarily beautiful novel about life (and marriage) after the death camps.

Author, Book review, Brian Moore, Cristina Henríquez, Five fast reviews, Joseph Kanon, Muriel Spark, Tiziano Scarpa

Five Fast Reviews: Cristina Henriquez, Joseph Kanon, Brian Moore, Tiziano Scarpa and Muriel Spark

Five-fast-reviews-300pix

‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ by Cristina Henriquez

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Contemporaries; 286 pages; 2015.

The-book-of-unknown-americansI read Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans for my book group, but it also fitted in quite nicely with #DiverseDecember. It’s a timely story about immigration — to the USA from Latin America — and the challenges those immigrants face on a daily basis.

Written in a light, almost “frothy” style, the novel follows the fortunes of a wide cast of characters in two families. Each character takes it in turn to tell their version of events, but there are also several chapters written as stand-alone “testimonials” by others that have also immigrated to the US. This structure serves to create a clamour of voices that show the ups and downs of moving to a new country and trying to fit in.

The blurb on the back of my edition claims it’s a love story between two teenagers — the brain-damaged Maribel Rivera, who has immigrated with her family to seek specialist education and treatment for her condition, and her neighbour Mayor Toro — and that’s partly true, but the book is more about showcasing life as an immigrant in the US, where the road isn’t always paved with gold and where racism and victimisation is always on the doorstep.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t particularly enamoured of this novel. I didn’t like the structure and thought the themes were overly simplified. But don’t take my word for it — many in my book group really liked it and it’s been a commercial and critical success in the US, where it was named a New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book, an NPR Great Read, and named one of the best books of the year by Oprah.com, School Library Journal, and BookPage.

‘Alibi’ by Joseph Kanon

Fiction – paperback; Sphere; 416 pages; 2007.

Alibi by Joseph KanonFor those of you who follow me on social media — and Instagram in particular — you will know I spent Christmas in Venice. It was my fourth visit to the watery city, and this time it was very much about the food and the drink, rather than the architecture and the walking (although there was plenty of that too). I packed Joseph Kanon’s Alibi in my suitcase, because I always love to read books set in the places I’m visiting, and this one certainly didn’t disappoint.

It’s largely billed as a murder mystery, but it feels more like literary fiction than anything else. It’s certainly intelligent, and the crime at its heart is almost too complex to follow, but it’s the scene setting — Venice in 1946, when everyone’s trying to deal with the outfall of the war —  which makes it such a great read. The characterisation is spot on too, especially the leads: Adam Miller, a traumatised war crimes investigator who has left the US Army and is now visiting his widowed mother in Venice,  and Claudia, an Italian Jew, who survived the death camps, with whom he falls in love.

The story, which is fast-paced and compelling (I read it in the space of two days, because I just had to know what happens next), is very much about love, forgiveness, war and moral culpability (one of my favourite themes in fiction and non-fiction). It brought to mind Robert Wilson’s A Small Death in Lisbon, which I read — and loved — years ago. This was my first Joseph Kanon; it won’t be my last.

‘Lies of Silence’ by Brian Moore

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury Classics; 192 pages; 1995.

Lies of Silence by Brian MooreFirst published in 1990, Lies of Silence is one of those novels I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. I’ve had this little Bloomsbury Classic edition in my TBR pile for years, so when I was casting about for something quick and compelling to read it seemed like a good fit: I wasn’t wrong. From the first word, this is the kind of gripping read that makes your pulse race…

Set during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, it thrusts one man into a moral quandary: on the day he plans to tell his wife he’s leaving her for another, much younger, woman, the IRA orders him to park a car in the car park of the Belfast hotel he manages. Without knowing the specifics, he believes the vehicle contains a bomb. But if he refuses to carry out the task, his wife, who has been taken captive, will be murdered; if he does what he’s told hundreds of hotels guests will be killed by the ensuing explosion. Whichever course of action he takes, there will be far-reaching and deadly repercussions…

In this intelligent, well paced novel, we see the themes of sacrifice, love, religion and war play out on a relatively small canvas. It is not your average psychological thriller. Yes, it’s a real page turner, but the prose style, almost old fashioned with an undercurrent of menace to it, lends it a literary feel. I loved it.

‘Venice is a Fish’ by Tiziano Scarpa

Non-fiction – paperback; Serpent’s Tail; 137 pages; 2009. Translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside.

Venice is a Fish by Tiziano ScarpaThis is another book that I read while I was in Venice. Written by a native Venetian, it has real Italian flair: the writing is fresh and original, and much of the anecdotes contained within are humorous and (sometimes) surreal. It is strangely bewitching and, hands down, the most innovative book about Venice I’ve ever read.

Scarpa’s main thesis is that Venice is so beautiful — her paintings, her architecture, her canals — that the visitor can be inflicted with a disease known as “aesthetic radioactivity”, an idea that is pushed so much it soon becomes wearing. However, the book is filled with some good factual information of the historical variety — this isn’t a guide book telling you which hotel to stay in or what restaurant to eat at.

It’s divided into short chapters which are themed around the ways in which the visitor experiences the city. For instance, the first chapter entitled “feet” is about experiencing Venice on foot, “ears” explores the city’s noises and “nose” is about smell, and so on. My favourite, and the one that came in most handy for my trip, was “mouth”, which gave me the courage to order authentic Venetian food (rather than typical pasta and pizza) when out dining. Indeed, it’s thanks to Venice is a Fish that I soon developed an addiction to sarde in saór: fried sardines marinated in a sautéed mixture of onions, wine, vinegar, pine nuts and raisins. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it…

(Note, the book could benefit from a Table of Contents and an index, and the last 40 pages fail to be clearly labelled as appendices.)

Territorial Rights’ by Muriel Spark

Fiction – paperback; Virago Modern Classic; 224 pages; 2014.

Territorial Rights by Muriel SparkTerritorial Rights is one of Muriel Spark‘s lesser-known novels — and, as I soon found out, there might be a reason for that. I read it on the basis it was set in Venice, so would be perfect holiday fare. To some extent that’s true: this was a very easy read, one that felt frothy and light and gave me several good belly laughs. But the storyline is absolutely bonkers.

I know that Spark’s plots are always a bit crazy and that her characters are often absurd and strange, but this one was filled with so many oddballs and misfits, all carrying on in weird and often abysmal ways, that I couldn’t keep track of who was doing what and why. And the ending, after all that hilarity, was also a bit of a let down.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book — it’s just that there are better Spark novels to spend your time with. But if you like farces, washed down with a good dose of eccentricity, you’d be hard pressed to find anything as perfect as this.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Ma Jian, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Red Dust’ by Ma Jian

Red-dust

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; CCV Digital; 336 pages; 2010. Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew.

I’m not a huge fan of travelogues, but I decided to read Red Dust based on the strength of Ma Jian’s superb novel Beijing Coma and Max Cairnduff’s excellent review.

I read it on my Kindle while in China last month, and found much of Jian’s descriptions, particularly of places I had been such as the ancient city of Xi’an and the Ghost City of Fengdu, very authentic.

The book chronicles Jian’s travels throughout China during the 1980s, a time in which travel for the average Chinese citizen was banned without the necessary paperwork.

He claims to go travelling because: “I want to see my country, every river, every mountain. I want to see different people, different lives. […] I just want to know it, see it with my own eyes.” But that is the sanitised version.

Before he hit the road, Jian was an official photographer for the propaganda department of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. He spent most of his free time as an artist. His house, a “crumbling old shack”, in Beijing was used by fellow creatives — writers, painters, poets and dissidents — as a secret meeting point.

He was labelled as a “questionable youth” by his bosses, who believed his “spare time activities” indicated he had been poisoned by “bourgeois Spiritual Pollution”. He escaped the clutches of Party Officials waging their Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution by forging his own travel documents and heading for the desert. (Just as well, because within a matter of years more than a million people were arrested and nearly 200,000 executed as part of the Campaign.)

It was 1983 and he was 30 years old. He had hoped to find spiritual enlightenment along the way, but as most travellers are wont to discover, Jian ended up learning a great deal about his country — good, bad and ugly — and the people who lived in it.

He was on the move for three years before he decided to return to Beijing.

Initially he revels in the freedom that travel provided:

Men are like swallows, when autumn arrives they long to fly away. Life moves with the same rhythm as the sky and the earth. It changes as sun changes into moon and day into night. If they told me to return to Beijing now, I would charge straight into those ramparts.  I would rather crack my skull and die than go back to moulder in that dank city.

But later, after some close encounters and a constant struggle to earn enough cash to get by, he realises that freedom is not the be all and end all. “Walking through the wilds freed me from worries and fears, but this is not real freedom,” he wrote. “You need money to be free.”

While I found Red Dust an easy read and enjoyed discovering more about China through Jian’s eyes, I did have some problems with the book.

The first — which can be dismissed as my own fault, rather than the author’s — was Jian’s narrative voice. I simply did not like it, because it often came across as arrogant and sexist (not dissimilar, in fact, to his fictional Dai Wei in Beijing Coma).

The second is simply the repetition of Jian arriving in a new place (usually broke and worried that the authorities will discover his papers are illegal), befriending someone, finding out about the local culture and then leaving. Once or twice is interesting, but when the bulk of the narrative is just relating a succession of these encounters, as different as each may be, it does become wearing. (Max Cairnduff’s review also finds this a major failing.)

Of course, that’s not enough to dismiss the book completely. There’s a lot in Red Dust which provides food for thought, particularly as it is set just as China’s economy was beginning to open up thanks to Deng Xiaoping‘s reforms. Jian thought that this would help his people, until he meets many rural folk who tell him otherwise. One chap says:

“A free economy won’t make bicycles or sewing machines grow from the earth. […] All the young men have left to find work in the cities. They come back at Spring Festival with new watches and big bags of clothes.”

I’d love to know how opinions and attitudes have changed in the 25 years since Jian went on his travels, but sadly Jian will never be able to retrace his steps to find out. He’s no longer welcome in his homeland and has been resident in London since 1999. His books are banned in China.

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

‘The Life of Hunger’ by Amélie Nothomb

LifeofHunger

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.