Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada

the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

First Blood

Amélie Nothomb

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase First Blood

Title: First Blood
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 109 pages
Original in: French
Availability: First Blood - US
First Blood - UK
First Blood - Canada
Premier sang - Canada
Premier sang - France
Der belgische Konsul - Deutschland
Primo sangue - Italia
Primera sangre - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • French title: Premier sang
  • Translated by Alison Anderson
  • Prix Renaudot, 2021

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B+ : nice portrait of the author's father

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The French Review A (95:4) 5/2022 Mark D. Lee

  From the Reviews:
  • "Pris en otage avec maints autres par des forces rebelles congolaises, Patrick dialogue sans cesse pour rester en vie. Ainsi fait également Amélie Nothomb dans ce roman émouvant, parfois drôle, parfois dramatique. Elle garde son père en vie le temps de survivre au peloton et ainsi permet-elle à ce que deux ans plus tard le troisième enfant de la famille Nothomb naisse pour un jour se souvenir de son père. Par la magie de la littérature, Premier sang permet aussi à Nothomb de prolonger la vie de son père au-delà de son décès de 2020 et de lui rendre cet hommage d'une rare beauté. Nous retrouvons un style classiquement nothombien dans la mesure où, composé majoritairement de dialogues qui font avancer l'action, la prose est d'une économie de plus en plus épurée, ne laissant rien de superflu." - Mark D. Lee, The French Review

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.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       Many of Amélie Nothomb's novels are loosely autobiographical accounts, told in the first person. First Blood also has a first-person narrator, but it is not Nothomb but rather her father, Patrick, and chronicles his childhood and early adulthood, his story bookended by episodes from the Simba rebellion where, in 1964, he was one of hundreds of hostages in: "what would become the largest hostage-taking incident of the twentieth century", taken by rebels in Stanleyville, in Congo, where the twenty-eight-year-old had been appointed Belgian consul.
       The novel begins dramatically, in the Congo, in 1964 -- the novel's opening line is: "They take me before the firing squad". Nothomb writes in the moment, in the present tense -- allowing her also to avoid acknowledging until the book's conclusion what is nevertheless already clear, that Patrick was not then executed (and, indeed, would live more than half a century longer). Facing imminent death, Patrick essentially has his life flash before his eyes -- or at least runs through it, as the bulk of the novel then is a flashback to his younger days, only in its conclusion returning to the (then) present-day of 1964 and the events in the Congo.
       Patrick's account goes all the way back, to infancy, beginning:

     The present began twenty-eight years ago. With the babbling of my consciousness, I witnessed my strange joy at being alive.
       A defining event was the death of his father when Patrick was just eight months old, the twenty-five-year-old soldier dying in an accident. Patrick's mother, Claude, was then happy enough to leave the child for her own parents to watch over and raise, seeing him regularly but hardly figuring much in his day-to-day life, even as he longed to be with her.
       As Patrick approaches school age, his grandfather observes that the youngster is "too soft" -- and so:
There's only one solution, my dear, he must go spend the summer with the Nothombs.
       Even Claude is shocked by the idea, but Patrick is packed off to the Nothomb-château in the Ardennes, Le Pont d'Oye, for two months. As impressive as the estate looks, grandfather Pierre has some difficulty making ends meet and it is anything but the lap of luxury. Patrick's father was the eldest of Pierre's children -- and a dozen more have followed; Patrick's youngest uncle is only a few weeks older than him.
       The kids are a pretty feral bunch but, despite the harsh conditions -- including far too little to eat --, Patrick takes to the place and family and has a grand time. He even insists on returning at Christmas -- when the conditions are even more harsh -- and reports that: "Of all the things I'd experienced in my six and a half years on earth, that Christmas vacation was the closest I'd ever come to happiness".
       Patrick keeps coming back to Le Pont d'Oye -- and as a teen discovers that he faints dead away at the sight of blood: "At the mere sight of blood -- human or animal -- I'm out". Even "the sight of a rare sirloin or a steak tartare was enough to set me off. It became a considerable handicap".
       The pace of the story quickens as Patrick grows into adulthood, including then also his courting the woman he would marry, Danièle -- whom Pierre disapproved of, as being too lowly-born to marry a Nothomb. Joining the diplomatic corps, his first posting is to newly independent Congo -- and, soon later, as consul in Stanleyville, and the story catches up to where Patrick began, as he reports:
     I am using the past tense, even though nothing is in the past. It's November now, and the hostages were seized at beginning of August. I feel as if I have been here forever.
       He negotiates with the rebels -- knowing that he has to keep at it, he admits to becoming a veritable gasbag. The possibility of sudden death is always in the air -- and sometimes very close, not least as the novel closes the circle and has him led to the firing squad ......
       It's clear how things will turn out, and Nothomb doesn't even dedicate much space to the actual rescue of the hostages (an Author's Note at the end points readers to her father's 1993 account, Dans Stanleyville, which presumably gives a fuller account). Despite its significance - a prolonged life-or-death moment --, Nothomb is more interested in a more rounded portrait of her father; if the crisis is the hook for her novel, the real meat is elsewhere. (So also there's barely any thought as to how Danièle, watching over two young children, is doing while the hostage-crisis is ongoing, for example.)
       Not surprisingly -- and as is often the case in her own autobiographical writings -- Nothomb is strongest in describing childhood experience -- with the mix of the cultured (Pierre is a poet) and the feral (the kids ...), and adults who are distant or oblivious in various way all very nicely mixed together.
       The drama of events in Stanleyville bookending the novel makes it easier to overlook that much of the rest of the story is rather thin on follow-through -- say, the role of the mother as Patrick grows older --, as Nothomb packs her whole story in in barely over a hundred pages. It's a charming, loving portrait, however, and good fun -- and also offers the genuine excitement of the events in Congo.
       A nice addition to Nothomb's œuvre.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 February 2023

- Return to top of the page -


First Blood: Reviews: Amélie Nothomb: 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

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       Belgian author Amélie Nothomb was born in Kobe, Japan, August 13, 1967.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2023 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links