A modern morality tale

Strike Your Heart by Amélie Nothomb

Translated by Alison Anderson

Belgian author Nothomb writes taut novellas about flawed heroines that are always interesting (see here and here) and they always read like fables or fairy tales in one sense or another, despite being resolutely modern. Her newest, published last autumn is no different in that respect.

It begins with the story of Marie, who is beautiful and nineteen-years-old, the world is her oyster, but when she gets pregnant by Olivier, the most handsome boy in her class, her life is ended before it begins. They marry in haste and soon the baby comes:

Overcome, he kissed his wife and congratulated her, then, with tears in his eyes, he took the baby in his arms and cried, “You are the loveliest little girl I’ve ever seen in my entire life!”

Marie’s heart froze. Olivier showed her the infant’s face.

“Darling, look at the masterpiece you have created!”

They ‘agree’ to name the little girl Diane after the goddess, Olivier’s choice, not Marie’s. She thinks:

“It’s not my story any more. It’s yours.”

It was January 15, 1972. Marie was twenty years old.

Everyone thinks Diane is gorgeous and doesn’t give Marie a second thought. Marie gets depressed, Olivier worries and Marie’s parents eventually take their granddaughter in during the day.

We then turn to Diane’s point of view. She views her mother as a goddess, unattainable, which is only reinforced when her mother gives birth to a son and another daughter who she adores, as much as she appears to ignore Diane. However, Diane is very much loved by her father and her grandparents.

Diane grows up, and we see how her relationship with her mother informs her own relationships with other women, from her adored sister Célia to her best friend Élisabeth; then there is one form of mother substitute in her mentor Olivia, a cardiologist, who uses Diane to help get her professorship and then dumps her. Diane can’t help comparing Olivia to her own mother. Life goes on for Diane, with incident to come, and to expound further would spoil too much.

I couldn’t help but think of the fairy tale of Snow White when reading this novel. In the original tale the brothers Grimm collected, it is the mother who is jealous of her daughter’s beauty, not the stepmother in the more familiar version.

Nothomb writes all her novels as cautionary tales. They’re not overextended, they’re precise with some cracking dialogue, but still have a strong visual sense. The title of Strike Your Heart also resonates throughout the novel in as many different ways as you can imagine. This is my favourite of those I have read. (9/10)

Source: Review copy – Thank you.

Amélie Nothomb, trans Alison Anderson, Strike Your Heart (Europa editions, 2018), paperback, 128 pages.

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