Marie Darrieussecq: Tom est mort (Tom is Dead)
The title of the book tells us immediately what the novel is about and the unnamed narrator, writing from ten years after the death of Tom, tells us who he is (and who she is). Tom was a four-and-a- half-years old boy, son of Stuart, an Englishman, and the unnamed narrator, a Frenchwoman. The couple had three children. Stuart’s job took him to different parts of the world and the three children had been born in Vancouver. Vince was the oldest, Tom next and, finally Stella, only a baby. Stuart had been transferred by his company to Sydney. Stuart and the narrator had gone in advance to Sydney, leaving the three children with the narrator’s parents in France. They had found a flat near Bondi Beach and enjoyed their time alone, particularly the uninterrupted sex. Vince and Tom had then been sent as unaccompanied minors, with Stella arriving soon afterwards with her grandmother. Tom seemed a bit lost, not adapting to the jet lag. Three weeks after his arrival, he is dead. It is not till the last paragraph of the book that we learn how and why he dies. What we do learn is that there seems to have been some sort of accident, that he was taken to hospital and that he was dead on arrival. The narrator seems to blame herself. Stuart will later absolve her of all responsibility.
The book deals entirely with the issue of Tom and his death. The narrator feels that she still has three children – Vince, Stella and Tom Is Dead. She continues to see and hear and feel him everywhere. The smallest thing reminds her of him – the smell of the shampoo, for example. She hears his voice all the time. Indeed, she is so sure that she is hearing his voice that she buys (unknown to Stuart) ten tape recorders, which she places strategically around the house and has them running continually. She listens to them afterwards and is convinced that she can hear his voice on the recordings. We follow both the events leading up to their arrival in Sydney but, more particularly, the period after Tom’s death. During this period, the narrator is unable to function. She tries to speak but cannot. Even when a police officer comes around to interview her about the death – was it really an accident? – she is unable to speak but only write on Post-It notes. He asks her why they had Tom cremated and she cannot answer, though we know that they did not want his remains tied to a place which they might leave. She neglects her children, with Stuart having to take care of them. Eventually, she has a breakdown and goes to a clinic. When she asks herself whether she would sacrifice Stuart, Vince and Stella to have Tom back, she is in no doubt that she would do so.
Even ten years after, she has still not got over her grief. She is proud of herself that, when she sees Vince surfing, she is worried about Vince and not Tom. She has regained her speech and can more or less function. She goes swimming at Bondi Beach with Vince one day but embarrasses him by coming out of the dressing room topless (she had forgotten to put her top on). But she still remembers Tom and what he did and what he said and their relationship, every minute of every day. Stuart shows considerable patience but even he, now and again, urges to to pull herself together. Her parents are far away and her father is having mental issues so there is little support there. She does not seem to have made friends in Australia. But what makes this book is not just the intensity and seriousness of the narrator’s tale – how her life is totally consumed by what happened to her son and her memory of him – but also the little anecdotes she recounts, the decisions she makes, her reactions to her environment, particularly her family who seem to remain somewhat shadowy figures, her memories of what happened after Tom’s death, what Tom was like, her relationship with him and his development. Losing a child is undoubtedly one of the worst things that can happen to a parent (Darrieussecq is a parent though she has not lost a child) and her tale of Tom’s death and the effect it has on her makes harrowing but very interesting reading.
Interestingly enough, this book was first published in English in Australia (the book was primarily set in Australia.) More interestingly, the book caused considerable controversy in France. The writer Camille Laurens, who was , like Darrieussecq, published by P.O.L., accused Darrieussecq of psychological plagiarism. Darrieussecq’s novel is entirely fictitious. However, Laurens had written a novel called Philippe on the same subject but based on the actual loss of her son. The stories are very different and Darrieussecq referred to other writers who had covered this topic. The publisher very much took Darrieussecq’s side – he had, after all, read both books – and stated that he would no longer publish Laurens for what he considered an unjustified attack. More details in English can be read here. See the homepage for articles on the topic in French.
First published in French 2007 by P.O.L
First published in English 2009 by Text Publishing Company, Melbourne