My rating: 5 stars
Short books can be as impactful and meaningful as longer ones. Strike Your Heart by the Belgian author Amélie Nothomb is a gripping and insightful story about uncaring, jealous mothers (and oblivious fathers) elegantly told mostly from the perspective of a perceptive daughter in various stages of her life. Although the short chapters make the plot flow fast, the life of Diane, the main character, still makes an indelible impression on readers.
In 1971, Marie, Diane’s mother, was nineteen years old. She was studying to be a secretary, but what gave her great satisfaction was going to tons of parties and catching the attention of young men there, since it made all the other young women jealous. Olivier was one of the young men interested in her. He believed that she was as much in love with him as he was with her. She soon got pregnant and had to give up her studies. They got married in a ceremony that was much simpler than Marie would have liked.
When Diane was born, Marie immediately became jealous of her. Olivier thought that she was depressed and asked his mother-in-law to take care of Diane during the day, while Marie studied to be an accountant. Despite immediately realising that it was a jealousy issue, she was delighted to look after her granddaughter, who was starting to understand that there was something wrong about the way her mother interacted with her.
A couple of years later, Marie got pregnant again. This time it was a boy – Nicolas. Diane realised straightaway that she wasn’t jealous of him and gave him affection. She thought that it was because he was a boy and, thus, her mother didn’t fear competition from him. However, when later she had a baby sister, Célia, and her mother was ecstatic, she concluded that Marie just didn’t love her much. She refused to let that lack of affection ruin her life. It did have a strong impact on her, though.
“She was transformed into a disenchanted creature who was obsessed with not foundering in the abyss that this situation had created inside her.”
Diane’s characterisation is a success throughout the book and makes readers empathise with her. She is wise, serious and single-minded. Although she is deemed cold by some of the people around her, she has great affection for her grandparents. She is also caring when others are treated unfairly.
Despite the story focusing initially on the relationship between Diane and her mother, it also delves into her connection with other women. Those relationships are indeed essential for the ending of the book. It is the mother and daughter relationship that is the most impactful and dissected, though. The tone of the narration is more reflective when their bond is being explored.
The writing style employed by Amélie Nothomb is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the book. It slightly changes throughout as time moves on. The initial chapters are full of scorn, adding to the description of Marie’s personality. She likes to be the centre of attention. After Diane is born, the book starts being narrated in the third person from her perspective. The way her thoughts when she is still a baby are put on the page is magical and meaningful. The single moment of affection she experiences from her mother is charmingly described.
“Diane was bathing in a perfume of ineffable sweetness and she came to know the headiest intoxication on earth: love. The goddess must, therefore, be her mother, since she loved her.”
Such musings could be considered too precocious. Yet, they also have a childlike quality to them, an eagerness to understand the world around her. Plus, the writing style is so evocative that it’s impossible to find fault with Nothomb’s choices. As Diane grows up, the prose becomes less flourished, but the book never loses its allure.
Strike Your Heart, translated from the French by Alison Anderson, is a small gem. It assembles strong emotions to get to the crux of Diane’s experiences.