August 2009

Arts & Letters

‘Tom Is Dead’ by Marie Darrieussecq

By Jacqueline Dutton

Marie Darrieussecq is one of the rare French novelists who has had most of their work translated into English. Her debut novel, Pig Tales, became an international success and another nine novels have followed in the decade since then. Her latest, Tom Is Dead, explores a mother’s mourning ten years after the death of her son. Given the novel’s unexpected setting in Sydney and the Blue Mountains, Australian Lia Hills is an aptly chosen translator and she has produced a text as powerful as the original.

Darrieussecq uses Australia as a bleak backdrop to her central maternal monologue, displaying a studied awareness of the geographical context she evokes. In this place at the other end of the world, the order of life is turned upside down: a four-year-old child dies just after his parents arrive in Sydney from Vancouver to begin a new life. Narrative order is also scrambled and emerges as a chaotic succession of sentiments: the decision to cremate rather than bury, the pleasure of a day at the beach, the trip to scatter Tom’s ashes in Tasmania, and endless comparisons between life with and without Tom.

After being nominated for prestigious prizes in France in 2007, Tom Is Dead was slated for psychological plagiarism by novelist Camille Laurens, whose autobiographical 1995 work Philippe related the death of her own son. But Darrieussecq’s novel is not autobiographical and she challenges the taboo of writing about trauma without having experienced it. Tom Is Dead explores a mother’s forbidden thoughts. She wonders whether she’d give up her two living children to see her dead child again. She questions her husband’s role in their son’s death. And she rails against the forgetting that is inevitable with the passage of time.

The prose is unsentimental despite the weight of emotion that it conveys. Short, simple phrases deliver the compelling tale in inventive ways, from measurements of grief on Internet “stress scales” to discussions of French literature in a Blue Mountains support group.

We know that Tom is dead before we even open the novel, but only in the last eight lines do we learn how he died. In stating that “Tom’s death made Australians of us,” Darrieussecq links the Frenchwoman’s discovery of Australia with the experience of the child’s death. The novel can perhaps be read as a metaphor for France’s thwarted attempts at establishing territories in the Antipodes, the quest for utopia ending in disappointment and death.

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