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Amélie Nothomb: Les aérostats [Airships]

Our narrator is Ange Daulnoy, a nineteen-year old Belgian woman. Ange is the French for angel and she later explains that her parents chose the name because it was epicene, i.e. could be used for either a male or female name. We have seen this issue in an earlier Nothomb novel. She is from a rural area but is currently in Brussels, studying philology at university. She had lived in university accommodation but hated it, firstly because she had to share a room and secondly because it was very noisy and she could not concentrate.

She now has her own room in a flat belonging to a student three years her senior, Donate. As we shall see, all three main characters have religious names, Donate comes from given to God. However, Donate is very fussy, complaining, for example, because Ange does not properly shut her shampoo bottle, even though the bottle belongs entirely to Ange. We have several other examples of this and it is not only with Ange, Ange hearing her on the phone being similarly unpleasant. Donate may or may not have a boyfriend called Ludovic. Ange believes he is an imaginary boyfriend. Neither Ange or the reader ever meets him.

Ange wants to earn money and offers her services as a teacher. She is contacted by a man who wants help with his sixteen-year old dyslexic son. The son, the third main character, is called Pie, which is the French for Pius, as in the names of the popes. The payment offered is very generous.

The boy has Swiss nationality and has lived most of his life in the Cayman Islands. His father, Grégoire, is a foreign exchange dealer and the family seem to be very well-off. Pie is struggling at school in his French classes which he needs to improve to pass his baccalauréat. (Belgium does not use the baccalauréat system but Pie is at a French school.) He is interested in weapons, particularly old guns and swords, though does not own one. He has never read a book in his life.

Ange suggests he read one of her favourite books. (Most of the books she will later suggest seem to be her favourite ones as well.) This one is Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir. His father says he will read it by the next day, which he does. He hates it. It is a book for girls. Hwoever, he is able to read it aloud, which suggests that he is not dyslexic. The next one she suggests is The Iliad which she suggests as it involves war, He reads that overnight, too. He loves it. He identifies with the Trojans, particularly Hector, hates Ulysses and thinks the Wooden Horse was cheating. He is less impressed with The Iliad.

It is clear that Ange has solved his dyslexia and has also encouraged him to read. Indeed, he starts picking his own books to read, though is still reading her suggestions. She learns that his father has an extensive library, consisting of all the great works of literature. However he has the books purely to show off and has not read a single one of them.

She also learns that the father has been spying on them through a two-way mirror. She is furious but the father continues. Pie is unaware of this. Clearly there are issues between father and son.

The situation is not much better with the mother. She spends considerable time showing Ange her collection of porcelain. However, this is not a collection of real porcelain, merely photos of porcelain on the web. Pie says his mother is stupid and his father married her to able to control her.

To break the hold of the father, with his spying, Ange takes Pie out. He is interested in zeppelins so she takes him to an aircaft museum which does not have zeppelins but does have two gondolas. The father is not amused but she is to continue because she is clearly helping the boy. However, it also seems clear that Pie is falling in love with her and tells her so.

Ange had assumed that she was invisible in classes as she had made no friends. When she makes a minor gaffe, she soon finds out that she is not invisible as everyone mocks her. Afterwards, however, her fifty-old old professor consoles her and then tells her that he loves her. He is divorced, with no children. So, in a very short time, she has gone from being lonely and having no romantic life to having a boy three years younger and man thirty years older falling in love with her. It does not quite work out as we expect or she expects.

To a great extent, this book is about loneliness. Ange has no friends and no romantic life, nor, it seems, do Donate, Pie and Dominique, her fifty-year old professor. Her parents have a few friends but only to show off to. Clearly, their marriage is not happy, nor is their relationship with their son. Moreover, both Ange and Pie are only children. But, ultimately, as it is Nothomb, there is a twist.

Publishing history

First published in 2020 by Albin Michel
No English translation