I mentioned a while ago that I get very jealous of people who seem to be able to search out, quite naturally and by chance, really unusual novels and authors. My friend John is one such fellow and when we were catching up over the phone, for the first time in ages, a few weeks ago he mentioned he was reading ‘The Character of Rain’ by Amelie Nothomb, which I have never heard of before and became intrigued by as it sounded so unusual. As luck would have it my library had a copy and so I, like a complete copy cat, decided to give it a whirl, and what an unusual book it did indeed turn out to be.
Apparently the Japanese believe that from birth until around the age a child goes to nursery that the child is in fact a god (something that I had never heard before and found the idea of really rather fascinating) of sorts. Amelia Nothomb uses this cultural reference in ‘The Character of Rain’ to give us the perspective of a child through these ages, only this is no ordinary child really, or is it?
‘The cradle became too small. The tube was transplanted to a crib, the same one used previously by its older brother and sister.
“Maybe moving the Plant will wake it up,” said the mother, sighing.
From the beginning of the univers, God had slept in the same room as its parents. This didn’t pose problems for them, of course. They could forget it was even there.’
The novel is initially told in the third person as we learn about this unusual baby simply called ‘Tube’ or ‘Plant’ who is born completely unresponsive. Everything soon changes as out of nowhere this child finds a voice and won’t shut up, enraged by the state it finds itself in until a surprise guest makes it firstly find something it likes and secondly finds its own sense of self when we realize that the third person narrative is actually this child’s voice told in a mixture of present, past and all knowing perspectives. Its a clever, quirky and rather unsettling style which I found I really liked and became intrigued by.
The child, we learn, is born in Japan and yet is the child of two Belgian parents who have moved to the country for the fathers work. This creates further interesting perspectives. Firstly we have the child questioning whether it is in fact Belgian or Japanese, does it have to be either, if so which would it choose to be, plus whether anyone can be a product of two cultures successfully and how those two cultures clash and collide. This becomes secondarily, or even more interesting when having found out that Nothomb herself was born in Japan from Belgian parents. Is this book then really a surreal and provoking version of her autobiography? As I read on I couldn’t help but hope not. Thirdly, we also get an insight into Japan in the 1970’s when the book is set, a time when the country was divided in many ways both within Japanese people and also with incoming foreigners and those who had lived there for generations.
‘Because I was becoming so demanding of Nishio-san, my parents decided to hire a second Japanese nanny to help her. They placed an announcement in the village.
Only one person applied for the job.
Thus Kashima-san became my second nanny. Kashima-san was the opposite of Nishio-san, who was young and gentle and sweet. Nishio-san was not pretty and came form poverty. Kashima-san was around fifty and her beauty was as aristocratic as her background. She belonged to that ancient Japanese nobility the Americans abolished in 1945. For nearly thirty years, she had been a princess, and then one day she found herself without a title and without money.’
I will admit that I had a few initial quibbles with the book. The start was a little over philosophical for me, and I was worried I wasn’t going to get very far with it, especially with all the ‘tube’ business. I also then worried when I realized our all knowing omnipresent narrator was actually not even yet at nursery but seemed to have the human race so down pat, I thought it would jar. As I went on reading though all worries went. I started to see what Nothomb was saying about children, and how they might not be able to say much but they think a lot and learn far faster than we adults do. I also started to really like our narrator, especially the darker and more crazy sounding and egomaniac like she became – any child who chooses ‘death’ as one of their first words is one to watch. I was reading on getting more and more nervous something dreadful seemed to be looming as the book progressed to the end.
As you can probably guess I really liked ‘The Character of Rain’ and it was the quirky and unusual read I wanted that would take me outside of the accidental trend I have been setting myself book-wise this year. I loved the dark edges of the book, I eventually loved and admired our very odd narrator and I found Nothomb’s themes and thoughts on culture and what defines us more and more compelling as I read on – and all in less than 150 pages, it is hard to fault. I can’t really recommend it more than that can I?
Who else has read ‘The Character of Rain’? Who else has read Amelie Nothomb, are you a fan of her quirks and style or do you find it odd and unsettling? Which of her books should I read next?