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the complete review - fiction
The Life of Hunger
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- French title: Biographie de la faim
- Translated by Shaun Whiteside
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A : disarming, revealing, appealing
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "Nothomb the writer has now discovered metaphor. Henceforth, the Japanese children will be referred to only as dandelions. Synecdoche, a little standing for a lot, now becomes a staple of Nothomb's style. Time and again, small details point to bigger issues." - Michèle Roberts, The Guardian
- "Aujourd’hui, elle donne à voir les rouages cachés et disparates de cette mécanique et opère entre eux les rapprochements qui dévoilent la source de l’écriture, dans cette biographie qui est peut-être le plus fin de ses romans." - Jean-Claude Lebrun, L'Humanité
- "Mais cette biographie de la faim, promise et tenue avec vaillance pendant deux ou trois douzaines de pages, se laisse très vite grignoter par l'autobiographie d'Amélie Nothomb (.....) Ecrire vingt ans plus tard le portrait acidulé, lucide, tendre sans attendrissement, drôle et désespérant d'une petite fille qui ne ressemble pas aux autres et qui deviendra un écrivain qui lui ressemble." - Jean-Baptiste Harang, Libération
- "While her three years of starvation occupy only a few pages, her reimagination of her infancy is spiked with an adolescent's bitter nostalgia. But these bruises are darker than the growing pains of ordinary self-consciousness." - Caroline McGinn, New Statesman
- "The Life of Hunger revels in dexterous and intelligent language, which soars and swoops and gathers the reader in the wake of its magical journey. True or not, who cares ?" - Kate Grimes, Scotland on Sunday
- "The Life of Hunger, described as "a fictional memoir", is fragmented and whimsical: autobiography as sushi. (...) There is, however, an oddly adolescent quality to her writing and to the persona behind the writing, as though the teenage novelist of nearly a quarter of a century ago is still calling the shots. The advantages of this are an ability to inhabit a lost childhood and to capture an authentically youthful voice, which teenage readers themselves will enjoy. The disadvantages are a flippant quality to the work -- described by admirers as charming or outrageous -- and a casual sense of construction." - Carol Ann Duffy, Sunday Telegraph
- "Ultimately, though, this is neither a sad nor a heavy book. The short chapters, few more than two pages in length, the lightness of tone (a feature of Shaun Whiteside's translation), and the wryly comic take on so many aspects of what must have been a disturbed and disorienting childhood (the scenes of the young girl discovering an appetite for alcohol are particularly comic) make for a book that is easy to read, even at its most abstract and theoretical." - John Hughes, Sydney Morning Herald
- "(A)s Amélie grows up, her hunger wildly oscillates between the metaphoric and the literal." - Zoë Strimpel, Times Literary Supplement
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Amelie Nothomb has written several novels grounded firmly in autobiography, but these all focus on a relatively short time-span, a few years of her life.
Though Biographie de la faim (now available in English as The Life of Hunger) accelerates rapidly once the narrator reaches adolescence, the book is considerably broader, covering Nothomb's life (or the life of a very Nothomb-like protagonist) from childhood through her early twenties.
Some of this territory is familiar: The Character of Rain describes her Japanese infancy, her masterpiece Loving Sabotage recounts her early schoolyears in Beijing, Fear and Trembling her work-experience in Japan.
Biographie de la faim does not repeat these stories, but highlights other aspects -- like a second camera filming different and only partially overlapping stories from around that same locale and time.
The novel is, in fact, a useful gloss on almost all her books, including those less directly or obviously autobiographical (in particular The Book of Proper Names with its ballet-obsessed, anorexic Plectrude) -- while also filling in several gaps in her biography that Nothomb has not yet covered in her novels, such as the New York and Dhaka years.
As the title suggests, Biographie de la faim is a book about hunger.
An appetite -- enormous and desperate -- defines the narrator, from an early age: "La faim, c'est moi" ("I am hunger").
It's more powerful than her, "un désir plus large que le désir" ("a desire greater than desire"), and to indulge in it is her greatest goal.
She posits the concept of "surfaim" (borrowing from Nietzsche's concept of a Superman, "surhomme"), a hunger beyond what is familiar as hunger.
If anyone has it, she does.
It's not just food, or food in general: there are specific things she lusts after.
Sugar, for one, but also simply water, which she guzzles incredible amounts of.
Among the best and most telling scenes is when she gets some sweets in Beijing (where they are hard to come by), and she sits down in front of the mirror to watch herself eat, doubly indulging in (and thus also heightening) her ecstatic pleasure.
(Yes, she's one strange little girl.)
The pre-pubescent body can still handle all this excess (helped, no doubt, by the fact that true excess was only occasionally possible, especially in the Beijing of the early 1970s), but already then it takes more dangerous turns.
Alcohol, for example, is a discovery and temptation, and becomes a habit before she's ten.
Biographie de la faim is far from being focussed exclusively on the narrator's appetites; indeed, after the early emphasis on it, introducing this as a defining part of her character, it becomes less prominent.
As always, Nothomb is fixated on childhood.
No surprise that the narrator feels she's seen and done it all by age seven, and expects nothing much more from life (and decides twelve will be a reasonable age to die at).
The intensity of childhood experience -- as in her appetites, but also in the experiences of love and passion and hatred -- can't be eclipsed; everything after is likely just anticlimactic: that's the story (and the tragedy) of her life.
It's not innocence that is lost with adolescence, it's the true splendour of life -- the sheer (and entirely personal) joy of watching oneself eat sweets in the mirror, for example.
Sex doesn't figure very high in the Nothombian universe; the one adult indulgence that might compare to those intense childhood feelings doesn't seem to do it for her.
Always deeply in love -- with her nanny, classmates, herself -- sex muddies the waters.
Among the most disturbing scenes in the book is one where she goes to summer camp in the United States when she is nine, and one of adults there (Peter, aged thirty-five, with a son her age) sees in her his very own Lolita.
The man convinces her father to let her sleep over for the night (so she can play with his son, of course).
She gets her own bedroom (which strikes even her as strange), and of course Peter comes in later that night, declaring his love.
She finds his actions and words simply perplexing (and fortunately Peter isn't completely reckless).
The reaction is a reasonable one from a nine-year old, but the narrator's (and most of Nothomb's characters) always seem to feel this sort of perplexity towards sex.
The daughter of a diplomat, the stages of Nothomb's (and her character's) life are also marked by the different stations of it -- her father's postings.
Born in Japan, that is home to her.
A few years in dreary Maoist China are followed by the bright lights of the big city, New York, where her parents want to make up for lost time and go out every night -- children in tow as often as not.
Next up: Bangladesh -- a shock to the system the ten-year-old prepares herself with by doubling her dose of whiskey; "On n'était jamais trop prudente" ("One can't be too careful").
China and Bangladesh, notoriously countries of hunger and far more impoverished then than now, continue to feed her intense desires, while the city of all excess, New York, suggests the possibility of getting everything one wants.
When she's thirteen they are posted in Burma, but -- having expected to be done with life at age twelve -- she's unprepared for thirteen.
In its outward manifestations, puberty is traumatic.
"Mon corps se déforma" ("My body deforms itself") is how she sees it: budding breasts (small, but even so, more than she cares for), she shoots up five inches in a year.
She gets braces, and feels let down by her body, unattractive.
She drinks to forget her age.
The solution she eventually settles on is radical, though hardly out of character: on 5 January 1981 (the name-day of Saint Amélie) she stops eating.
As usual, once she sets her mind to something, she also sees it through: like Plectrude in The Book of Proper Names she wastes herself away, her hunger now turned into its complete opposite.
(Not surprisingly, the numbers given in both books tally: she may be dressed up differently in each, but it's the same girl behind them.)
At age fifteen, measuring 1 metre 70 (5 foot 7), she weighs in at a mere 32 kilos (just over 70 pounds).
These descriptions of these anorexic years are deeply disturbing, and yet it's just another rite of passage for this girl who generally goes very much her own way.
(And there's always a touch of that wicked humour, too, as when she suggests that her parents should be pleased that after all her condition has at least cured her alcoholism.)
The crisis resolves itself near the point of no return, her body revolting against her mind.
She's not pleased ("J'aurais préféré mouriré ("I would have preferred to die"), but since she can't she accepts destiny and lets her body fill out again.
The years fly by.
Quickly the books jumps ahead to university (in strange -- to her -- Belgium), itself hardly worth more than brief mention, then to Japan where she goes to work after she graduates.
But those post-childhood years have a different, sour quality.
She eventually adapts and accepts, but never seems to get entirely comfortable in that skin.
Unsurprisingly, the last few chapters are concerned with her beloved governess Nishio-san (familiar also from The Character of Rain), representative of the world and life she always wants to return to.
Biographie de la faim is presented, like many Nothomb novels, in very short chapters.
There are specific episodes, but also many more general descriptions, as life in Laos or elsewhere are summed up in a few sentences.
The text complement the previous autobiographical works, adding useful background to, for example, Fear and Trembling, as well as revealing some of what happened in the years not yet covered in other fictions.
(But there's still a good deal of room for separate New York, Bangladesh, and Burma novels from her .....)
The mix of humour, philosophising (of sorts), and odd stories (from the plain domestic to the fantastic -- like the elephant she got for her birthday) makes for a wonderful read.
Nothomb is particularly good in describing the happily needy relationships she has: her adoration of Nishio-san or her New York nanny, Inge, as well as the attention she receives from especially her New York Lycée français classmates.
Almost all of these are cases of veneration; indeed, young Amélie seems to have been involved in few relationships that were not based on this, from one side or another.
Family life wasn't as extreme (except for the tolerance for alcohol-consumption), and father, mother, and sister are nicely portrayed, suggesting real relationships beyond her wildly unrealistic other ones.
(There's a brother, too, but she's very glad to see him sent off to boarding school.)
Nothomb's success -- here as often elsewhere -- is in the portrayal of the precocious child.
She gets the tone, the confidence, the limited view and understanding of the world of the child down perfectly.
And the girl is an endearing rather than annoying precocious; it seems entirely believable that she was loved as much and as passionately as she claims.
Significantly, Nothomb doesn't revel in childhood-innocence (like so many nostalgic authors do); but she takes the feelings of childhood as seriously as anyone ever has, understanding that love and hurt can mean more at that age than ever later in life.
Nothomb also has no qualms about seeing in adolescence the ruin of the world: the precocious child does not become a precocious teenager, but rather an unappealing girl overwhelmed by a world she can no longer dominate.
There are few authors for whom the loss of childhood is as traumatic, and even in Biographie de la faim there seems a reluctance to really dwell on it at any length.
Anorexia becomes a substitute for all that went wrong, its horror easy to describe, its consequences obvious and devastating -- but Nothomb's hurt seems to go much deeper.
Despite the focus on childhood, and the deceptively simple presentation, Nothomb's books are mature works.
Hers is an adult voice and understanding, and here she ventures further and tries more than previously.
She also still has a ways to go: where Loving Sabotage is near-perfect in its limited story (her years in Beijing), Biographie de la faim gets too loose during the character's teenage years, as if Nothomb set out but then saw she wasn't quite prepared to confront those years head on.
Still, this is among her finest achievements.
(Note: Unlike her previous works, Biographie de la faim is not described as a "roman" (a novel) on the cover -- but it's also not presented as an autobiography.
It can certainly be read as a memoir, but is probably not much more (or less) so than, for example, Loving Sabotage.)
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The Life of Hunger:
Other books by Amélie Nothomb under review:
Books about Amélie Nothomb under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of French literature at the complete review
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About the Author:
Belgian author Amélie Nothomb was born in Kobe, Japan, August 13, 1967.
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