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Marie Darrieussecq: Le Mal de mer (UK: Breathing Underwater; US: Undercurrents)

I am not sure quite what to make of this book. The plot can be summed up in a few sentences. After school, an unnamed mother takes her unnamed daughter away from home, after having extracted ten thousand francs from her and her husband’s joint bank account. She tells no-one what she has done or where she is going. If there is a motive, it is not clear to us. As far as we can determine, not even the daughter knows the reason. Apart from the money, she has not really prepared for the journey. They drive to an area where the forest meets sea, near the Spanish border (Saint Jean-de-Luz?), a seaside resort. There they rent a flat, as it is still out of season, and spend their time there. Meanwhile, her husband hires a private detective to track them down, telling him that he is only interested in getting his daughter back and will not press charges. The detective finds the two quite quickly but delays reporting back to the husband but, eventually, he does. Father comes to pick up daughter (without any resistance from his wife) and she heads off to Australia.

But, of course, as with any Darrieussecq novel, it is not the plot that counts. Isolation, separation, alienation are her themes and these we get here. None of the four main characters – the mother, her daughter, the mother’s mother and the husband – are named, though some of the minor characters are. They remain, as Darrieussecq’s characters sometimes do, somewhat shadowy. The husband clearly wants his daughter back (but not his wife) but is it purely a father’s love for his daughter or a power struggle with his wife? The grandmother is naturally concerned about her daughter and granddaughter (and her son-in-law) but seems at a loss to know how to deal with it. She, like her daughter and granddaughter, more than once retreats into strange dreams. The daughter feels somewhat lost. She does not know (and does not seem to ask) what is happening and why. She sees ghosts (as other Darrieussecq’s characters do) and feels alone. For example, she wakes up one evening and finds herself alone in the flat and seeks company of the man in the upstairs. The prime mover, the wife, also seems to be somewhat shadowy. We do not learn her motives. Is she tired of her husband and of the dull routine of her life? Is she looking for a more interesting life? Her journey to Australia at the end seems to imply this. She seems well organised, soon finding them a flat at the resort and selling the car to supplement their resources. She even calculates (more than once) how much money they have and how they will budget. She also seems intent on having a good time – going out in the evening (and leaving her daughter), making friends with Patrick, the swimming instructor, sunbathing, enjoying the seaside life. There is one other named character who has something of a role, Lopez, the genial ice-cream seller, who is friendly to both mother and daughter.

Darrieussecq likes puns – think of her first book – and this title is almost certainly a pun. Mal de mer is the normal French term for seasick. Mal, however, has several meanings in French, including sickness, bad, evil and pain. Clearly, given the two mothers in this book, there is a pun on the word mer and mère (mother) so the title, as spoken, could means something like mother sickness or mother pain but also mother bad. (Inevitably, explaining a pun takes away some of the meaning.) Interestingly, both the US and US titles (both different) focus on the water aspect. Water is fairly key in this novel and not just because of their proximity to the sea. The images in the dreams and thoughts of all three women involved water and the sea. The British title, Breathing Underwater, could have been Talking Underwater, as there is virtually no direct conversation and the impression is of watching a scenario played out as though it were underwater – vague, shadowy, with conversation muffled or non-existent. However, while the book is certainly an interesting experiment in (lack of) communication and isolation, it did not really work for me.

Publishing history

First published in French 1999 by P.O.L
First published in English 2001 by Faber & Faber/New Press