Louise Lambrichs, A ton image (1998)

I’m so happy Litlove recommended me this writer and this novel, it’s a complex book but one I won’t forget for a while. Because it isn’t available in English as far as I know, I will tell the story at length (spare the resolution) because I feel it’s quite worth it. Lambrichs is a philosopher and trained in psychoanalysis as well as a novelist: you can feel all that throughout this strange novel and the result is difficult to classify in any single genre: psychological thriller? essay on family heritage, on our ability and limits to reinvent ourselves outside of heavy family background? Warning against the medical ethic under a fictional pretext? crime story? science-fiction even?

 

The narrator presents himself under the most benign light, as a professional ob-gyn with a wife he loves and a beautiful daughter. But soon the mood darkens when he recounts his grim childhood in a small, bleak farm in Normandy, with an abusive father, a terrified mother who doesn’t show any love and a mentally handicapped sister. A bright student, he leaves home to study in Paris, but that very day, his sister makes open sexual advances to him and he discovers at the same time that his father has for years committed incest on his sister, with his mother’s complicity. Yes, I know, it’s horrible. It’s not told in a voyeuristic way but it’s still quite disturbing to read. Because he hasn’t been able to turn his sister away, he’s a kind of accomplice too and he doesn’t show any courage, never confronting his father but just making sure his school results are good enough so that he’ll never need to go back to the farm.

 

At the very beginning, I got scared because the narrator seemed quite a chatterbox. He is a highly educated man and proclaims from the first paragraph that he has lived through so much he doesn’t care if he dies. This kind of cliché may be off-putting but Litlove’s effusive recommendation encouraged me. Soon I found out that this chatterbox had an extraordinary compelling power. The constant flow of his intelligent and moderate voice makes the most terrible tragedies completely understandable (if not acceptable).

 

The only distance that we readers are encouraged to take is through brief intermissions in which we learn that the narrator sits in jail for a shocking (unnamed) crime and is actually writing his life story to convince his attorney. The relationship between the female attorney (who has her own issues) and her client soon develops into a fascination, a complicity, and a kind of flirt.

 

The narrator as a young man falls in love with the woman he boards with in Paris, a young widow he marries after he becomes a doctor. She falls into a deep depression when she learns that she can’t bear him a child. Resolved to do anything to keep her, the doctor receives a proposal from his boss at the hospital to attempt to clone his wife under the pretext of a normal fertility treatment. Yes, I know, how could I believe this for a minute?

 

The narrator’s mellow voice helps stretch our disbelief, that’s for sure, but the cloning part of the plot is seen under a strictly medical light, as a treatment just a little more extreme than IVF, so that it doesn’t feel like a SF fantasy. The operation is successful, but contrary to the boss’ hope, the father doesn’t want to disclose the secret of his daughter birth because he not only fears publicity but also his wife’s betrayed reaction. The daughter grows up into a beautiful young girl looking quite like her mother, which reopens the door to secret incestuous desires.

 

The narrator’s view on clones (is it Lambrichs? It’s difficult to make it out) is unexpectedly optimistic, worlds away from Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, for example. The narrator’s take is that a person’s self builds itself with her own history and experience and not only her genetic heritage, so that the daughter is quite different in character from her mother. The only problem is that she’s eerily aware, somehow, of her own lack of family background (she refuses to call the ob-gyn her father, for example). But then the story ends up in tragedy, somehow refuting this optimistic view.

 

I don’t quite know how to take this book, because the narrator is so seductive that you end up agreeing with anything he says, even if you realize in the end that he may have been a monster and lying all along. It’s quite manipulative (a clever art of writing indeed, all the way until the last pages’ twist!), so a very disturbing read both in form and content. I can’t help but recommend it anyway, but it’s not a light book for fun!

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3 thoughts on “Louise Lambrichs, A ton image (1998)

  1. thank you for reading it and I’m so glad you got into it! I always wonder how much difference it makes, being a non-native speaker. I found the language very epure (can’t think of the right English equivalent) and somehow that made the terribleness and the extremity of the plot wholly credible. I spent the whole time waiting for something awful to happen to the daughter and when it finally did, I still wasn’t at all prepared for the way it happened, although in retrospect you could see its inevitability. I actually wrote an academic article on this book (which was translated into French) and could send you a copy if it interested you. Not to worry at all if you are not in the mood for analysis at your current stage!

  2. Litlove, please do send me your article, I would be delighted (I have a blog mailing address top left) ! The writing is quite straightforward, but it’s not very simple because it often goes into psychological explanations (contrary to the common writing rule: show, don’t tell).

  3. Oh I think I will be getting this one right away – sounds too fascinating (and horrible) to pass up. I love compelling narrative voices, no matter the subject or the story so I will try pick this one up as soon as I get to a bookstore.

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