With 25 novels under her belt in a high-profile career spanning 25 years, Amélie Nothomb can justifiably be called a prolific writer. Born in Japan to Belgian parents, Nothomb writes slender and spiky books that have charmed and provoked European readers. Although a handful of her works are available in English, she remains something of a little-known wonder in the Anglophone world.
If there is any justice, that should now change. Nothomb's latest offering, "Strike Your Heart," is a less offbeat, more conventional novel than the two dozen that preceded it, and it is none the worse for that. Ably translated from the French by Alison Anderson, this short, pungent tale of familial jealousy, personal ambition and unrequited love introduces a wonderfully compelling heroine and charts her formative relationships with several significant women.
In a provincial French town in 1971, 19-year-old Marie enjoys being the center of attention — adored by boys, envied by girls — and feels she is destined for great things. Instead, though, she gets pregnant, is hurried into marriage and gets a job in her husband's pharmacy.
But the novel's beginning turns out to be a false start. Nothomb's protagonist is not Marie but her firstborn daughter, Diane. Doted on by her besotted father and neglected by her "indifferent goddess" of a mother, a young Diane looks on helplessly as Marie shows a marked preference for her baby brother; later, when Marie showers a "debauchery of maternal love" on her new daughter Célia, a confused and brokenhearted Diane senses "the death of her childhood."
She grows up looking for affection elsewhere. As a little girl she seeks "grandmotherly asylum"; as a teenager at the lycée she finds solidarity in best friend Élisabeth Second, and is practically adopted by her parents (prompting the pun "the Second family"); and at medical school, while specializing in cardiology, she forges a close bond with her mentor, Olivia.
But Olivia soon shows her true colors — selfishly pursuing her career ahead of any friendship, and callously mistreating her young daughter, Mariel. Recognizing the same kind of loveless abandonment she once suffered, Diane takes Mariel under her wing. However, she doesn't reckon on the full extent of Olivia's ruthlessness and Mariel's trauma.
For the most part, "Strike Your Heart" unfolds in spare, blunt, matter-of-fact prose. Nothomb's style and tone become more animated and textured when describing Diane's anguished response to a tragic circumstance — a snuffed-out life, her mother's ice-cold shoulder — or her child's-eye observations of the world around her (the latter a reprise of a technique Nothomb deployed throughout an entire novel, "The Character of Rain").
Powering this accomplished novel is a woman who has learned to be tough and flinty to survive but also loyal and caring to stay human. Nothomb dazzles with her shocking denouement and leaves her stunned reader with a bitter aftertaste in the mouth and a craving for more.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Strike Your Heart
By: Amelie Nothomb, translated from the French by Alison Anderson.
Publisher: Europa Editions, 135 pages, $15.