Amelie Nothomb is a prize-winning Belgian writer who lives in Paris and has been much lauded in her career for experimenting and pushing boundaries in her fiction. Her latest work to be translated into English is a novella that sees a protagonist by the name of Amelie Nothomb, a novelist, seeking out a drinking companion and striking up an intermittent friendship with an intense young woman called Petronille. The book is a snapshot of their relationship over 15 years.
The dynamic between the two drinking buddies can be awkward and off-kilter but in a way that is both charming and believable. Their exchanges are sometimes barbed, and they fail to understand each other but it reads as the recognisable complexity of many friendships.
They have anarchic, almost slapstick, adventures in Paris at literary soirees, on an impromptu weekend in London, and on a drunkenly conceived skiing holiday in the Alps. They drink vast quantities of champagne. They philosophise and discuss politics and literature, aware but unbothered by their own pretensions. They are often appalled by the other and frequently rib each other over perceived absurdities. Their dialogue is naturally jagged and yields exquisitely funny lines such as “Don’t call me at midnight to tell me that the Eiffel Tower is a launch pad for private rockets!”
Nothomb exhibits a wry, knowing humour throughout and although the book may seem wild and uneven, it is executed with rare wit and skill. It is also surprisingly refreshing to see women characters engaging in the kind of serious frivolity that is more often the purview of male characters in fiction, in the vein of Wodehouse or Waugh.
The story has a shocking, exhilarating ending which makes the entire project seem joyfully unhinged. It is a raucous satire on the modern literary merry-go-round but it is also, in Nothomb’s own words, a short paean to “that strange sort of love which is so mysterious and so dangerous and where you never quite know what is at stake: friendship.”