Monday, 1 June 2009

Book of the Month: The Ninth Life of Louis Drax (Liz Jensen)

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is Liz Jensen’s fifth novel. The former sculptor and BBC television producer declared that it was her first grown-up book. It is also her most commercially successful novel, which, by her own admission, brought her financial security.

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is a novel about a bright, precocious, and accident-prone nine-year-old Louis Drax. There are two narrative voices in the novel, one of which is Louis himself. The novel opens with Louis narrating the facts of his life. We learn that he lives with his mother; that all is probably not well between his mother and pilot father (his father lives separately); that he is a deeply disturbed child—he is known as ‘Wacko Boy’ in his school—who is seeing a child psychologist; that he has some bizarre preoccupations; and that he is deeply, almost pathologically, attached to his mother. It takes a while before the reader realises that Louis in fact is in a coma, after he fell off a cliff while picnicking with his parents. The accident-prone Louis, who has had a series of near misses in each one of his first eight years, every time saved by his mother in the nick of time, has finally found himself in a situation that would send him hurtling down a cliff and consciousness, while his mother is too far to save him. However, is it an accident? According to Natalie Drax, Louis’s mother, Louis was pushed off the cliff by his father, Pierre, following a violent argument between her and Pierre in which Louis got dragged in. Her version of the events cannot be confirmed, however, as Pierre has disappeared and Louis is in coma. Certainly, detective Charvillefort has not excluded Natalie as a suspect. When it becomes apparent that Louis is not going to regain consciousness any time soon, he is transferred to a residential clinic in the Provence where he is admitted under the care of the Neurologist Pascal Dannachet, who is the second narrative voice of the novel. Dr. Dannachet, who is having a midlife crisis of his own, predictably, falls for the vulnerable, traumatised and emotionally needy Natalie, and soon their relationship is hurtling down a path, which, he knows in his saner moments, is going to end in a disaster. To add to the intrigue, both he and Natalie receive letters asking him to back off (insinuating unpleasant consequences if he did not), in a handwriting that is a child’s and in a language that is characteristically Louis’s. While everyone assumes that the letters were sent by Pierre, Dannachet is convinced—even though his rational self is telling him that it cannot be—that Louis himself somehow effected the letters. Then Pierre’s dead body is found in a natural cave off the same cliff Louis fell from, and the only way he could have ended up there was if he jumped off the cliff or was pushed. It is also clear that he was alive for quite some time in the cave and probably starved to death. The needle of suspicion once again points towards Natalie. Dannachet, who till now has been indignant on behalf of the falsely-accused Natalie, begins to do his own investigations: he makes a trip to see Louis’s former psychologist; speaks to dead Pierre’s mother (who has never got along with Natalie for whom her son has deserted his first wife); and comes to know certain facts about Natalie’s past life which she has either not told him or has given a version that is very different from those of others. Dannachet then plans a daring experiment that defies logic to get to the truth, which propels the novel towards its dramatic, if somewhat unconvincing, finale.

In The Ninth Life of Louis Drax Liz Jensen tries her hand at a different genre (or perhaps more than one genre) from those of her earlier novels, which were about comedy of manners, contemporary satire, and Orwellesque dystopian future. The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is a psychological thriller, a mystery story with more twists than a maze maker on acid. Jensen also makes forays into the neuropsychology of mind (the clue is in the epigraph of the novel, which is a quotation from Paul Brok’s Into the Silent Land). This exploration into the unconscious mind that veers into paranormal, while integral to the plot, assumes an ability on the readers’ part to suspend belief, and those who are unable to do that may find the premise a straw man. Of the two narrative voices in the novel, Louis’s is the more convincing, entertaining, and ultimately very moving. The narrative discourse of Louis is spot on—Jensen has superbly captured the idiolect of preadolescent boys, which adds to the pleasure of reading. Danachet’s views, on the other hand, about what is happening to Louis, appear more to belong to a columnist of paranormal magazines—Ghosts, spirits, afterlife, EVP, UFO, and the comatose boy who practises mind-control—than to a maven of brain pathology. The credulity and naivety of Danachet, who is supposed to be a reputed neurologist, is astounding, as is his capacity to unload seemingly fathomless cargo of clichés. (His dealings with Natalie Drax ought to get him struck of the medical register.) This is is one confused Neurologist in the middle of a midlife crisis more serious than an African republic in the midst of a coup d’etat. Similarly, the portraiture of Natalie Drax as a deeply psychologically scarred (and flawed) person is not convincing. The reader gets no worthwhile insights into Natalie’s cardboard character.

The inspiration of The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, according to Liz Jensen’s personal website, came from a family tragedy in Switzerland in the 1930s, when one of her uncles, after a violent argument with his mother, Jensen’s grandmother, left the house. A few days later, when he had not returned, Jenesen’s grandmother jumped off a cliff. The uncle was never found either. In an interview, Jensen said that rather than recreating the family tragedy in a fictional form, she attempted to recreate the emotions surrounding the tragedy. On the available evidence, she has made a success of it. The Ninth Life of Louis Drax may not be a psychological masterpiece, but it is an entertaining, easy read.