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Amélie Nothomb: Le livre des soeurs [The Book of the Sisters]

Nora was twenty-five and was an accountant for a garage when she met Florent, the first event of any significance in her life. Florent was thirty and a driver for the army. They fell in love and were soon married. Nine months later Tristane was born. Tristane cried at night and the couple took it in turns to comfort her but were warned this was not a good idea,as she would end up spoilt. That was the fashion then (1973). When she was two weeks old, Florent picked her up and told her that it seemed that she was like him and that he loved her and that her mother loved her and that the crying had to stop. She did not cry again.

Nora was keen to get back to work and not be a full-time mother so Tristane was put into a crèche. Tristane loved it. The only problem was that when she came home, she was fed, washed and put to bed, with the door closed. She could hear her parents having a good time and she wanted to be part of it. Initially she fell asleep after a short while but, as she got older, she would lie awake.

It is during this period she essentially taught herself language in order to remember her dreams and tell them to herself. She picks up words from her parents and from the crèche. However, she never speaks the words so her parents are somewhat concerned that she cannot talk. When she hears them discussing this she is able to say Mummy and Daddy, to their surprise.

Nora has a sister, Bobette, who is somewhat different from Nora. She has four children, though the father is unknown in all cases. At home she watches TV and drinks, smokes and lets the children sort themselves out. Jacky, her third can only say Yeah. When the fourth child appears, named Cosette, Bobette wants Tristane to be the godmother though she is only two! Tristane willingly accepts and looks after her god-daughter. Moreover, she secretly says that she would have preferred Bobette to be her mother.

Tristane goes to nursery school and enjoys it but does not fit in, not least because she does not speak their childish language. She takes up reading, learning by herself, but when she is sitting with a book and tells her mother she is reading, her mother thinks she is merely pretending. She is not.

She even teaches herself to write. When she writes phonetically, writing cha instead of chat (i.e. cat in French) her mother thinks the teacher has written the wrong word. Tristane does not disabuse her.

Nora and Florent have not had a second child but are encouraged to do so. When Tristane is asked she says she would love a younger sister. However, while waiting for the sister, she spends eight months looking after Cosette and living with Bobette. She manages the whole family, Bobette included, doing the cooking, shopping and housework. When Nora’s baby is born, as with Tristane, she does not want to give up work. Tristane agrees to take charge so her mother can go back to work. Not surprisingly the two sisters become very close.

The two grow up with Laetitia off to crèche and Tristane off to school where, of course, she is always top of the class. However the relationship is so close that the two sisters secretly marry one another. While Laetitia seems to be more socially aware than her sister and also less concerned with what people say, Tristane keeps herself to herself (and her sister) and takes the off the cuff remarks of others very much to heart. When she hears her mother call her dull, she is really hurt. Similarly remarks made by other children at school because of the glasses she now wears for short-sightedness also affect her.

Things change when the very outspoken come to live with them. The three girls, inspired by Laetita, form a Led Zeppelin-inspired group, with Laetitia taking the lead and Tristane following along.The group starts off with three but does not really work out and Tristane wants to go off and study literature.

There seem to be two themes that Nothomb is writing about here, Firstly, there is the close sisterly relationship. Tristane and Laetitia remain very close throughout the book , even when their life choices diverge. This very much mirrors the relationship between Nothomb and her sister Juliette. Secondly, it is clear that their parents are much keener on one another up to and beyond the death of one of them, than they are on their daughters. Part of the the theme of the book is how Tristane in particular has to detach herself from her mother and make her own way, without being influenced too much or, indeed, at all by what her mother says. You cannot live the life that your parents expect of you but have to make your own path.

Clearly this book is very autobiographical though I would lke to know if Nothomb did see herself as the Belgian/female John Paul Jones. While it is by no means the first time she has used elements of her own life in her books, this one seems to go further than many of her other works and is an interesting study of sister and parental relationships.

Publishing history

First published in 2022 by Albin Michel
No English translation