Though the Amélie-centric Nothomb is betrayed by a clumsy translator, she prevails. Choice bits: “Fighting for a standard or a Grail had certain sense to it: a boy is neither one nor the other.” A Lycée official tells her mother: “’Your daughter’s brain is overdeveloped.’ ‘I know,’ replied my mother, unmoved by this kind of remark.”
Nothomb develops a unique first-person world in which self-love is both fundamental and poisonous. A diplomat’s daughter, her semi-autobiographical reminscence is set mostly in Peking, Manhattan and Dacca of the 1970s and is suffused with wittily dark cravings for water, chocolate, and whiskey.
Nothomb is a poker-faced comic whiz (an American teacher mistakes her Belgian nationality for Bulgarian — “You have an authentically Bulgarian face,” he tells her earnestly; in Bangladesh, “The people who weren’t too eaten away by illness were very handsome.”) An alcoholic and early teen anorexic — “I was a corpse. I was fascinated.” — she is omnisciently good at portraying prepubescent doubt.
She’s also frugal: a watery rape (at age 14) is told in 10 short paragraphs; anything more, she knows, would dull the pain.