We Need to Talk About Louis

Book Review: The Ninth Life of Louis Drax – Liz Jensen

Louis Drax is a precocious nine year old boy who has experienced a suspicious number of accidents culminating in a clifftop plunge during a family picnic. His father disappears on the same day and although Louis is pronounced dead, he ends up in a coma state from which it is thought unlikely he’ll recover. The mystery surrounding the incident forms the basis for the plot. It seems there is more than misfortune at play.

The comatose boy narrates much of the story. This gives the author a chance to explore ideas around consciousness, which she does with great imagination and to dramatic effect. Louis’ state of mind also also enables tricks to be played on the reader. We can never be absolutely sure how much of the little boy’s story is true, and how much derives from distorted memories, misinterpretation, lies and even dreams. The atmosphere is creepy, sinister and intriguing.

Part of the mystery is around whether or not Louis is a ‘problem child’. This, Liz Jensen’s fifth novel, was published in 2004, a year after Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, but where ‘Kevin’ contained more weighty discussion about whether children can be born evil, Louis raises questions as to the role of parents in how children are perceived. What’s unsettling here is the way the powerlessness of children is highlighted. What might be the motives of a parent who raises concerns about their child’s behaviour?

Louis has a lively way with words. He tells us about his early life which includes visits to Fat Perez, a child psychologist described as having, “a big fat face like a baby. If you had a pin you could burst it, and yellow gob would splatter out.” Then there’s the mysterious Gustave and his bloody bandaged head; “Gustave’d scare you too, if you met him. Because underneath the bandages he hasn’t got a face and sometimes he coughs so hard it turns into being sick and sometimes I think I’m making him up just for someone to talk to.”

Alternate chapters are narrated by Dr Pascal Dannachet, a coma specialist who becomes fascinated by Louis’ case and also by his fatally charismatic mother, Madame Natalie Drax. Madame Drax claims that Louis’ father pushed him from the cliff, but the local authorities suspect her of child abuse. The plot thickens when she receives a disturbing letter purporting to be from Louis. As Dannachet becomes ever more embroiled in the drama he comes up with an inventive plan to find out the truth.

The subject matter here is intriguing although the storyline perhaps gets a little fantastical at times. Authorial research into neuropsychology shows through, and interesting facts abound, but this isn’t a profound book it’s a dramatic piece, some of the things that happen here would only take place in a Hollywood movie, never in a coma ward. In fact I could just see this as a film, an old black and white with Dannachet played by Cary Grant, (perhaps wearing some serious looking spectacles), full of charm and intelligence but with a weakness of character that makes him not quite trustworthy. (Anthony Minghella had in fact written and planned to direct a film before his untimely death in 2008). Whilst there are some absurdly melodramatic moments, it all adds to the excitement and builds up to an ultra dramatic climax, something I suspect may be typical of the author, having read another of her books.

Liz Jensen is an unusual writer, one who critics seem to find difficult to categorize. Her curious mix of ideas and style seems to annoy those who can’t tell whether she’s trying to write literary or pulp fiction. She’s not afraid to mix serious themes with outlandish ideas but at times she can still read like a formulaic thriller. Although my bedside light went out much later than intended as I was gripped by the various twists and turns, my ultimate feeling was one of mild disappointment with a denouement I felt pandered to certain stereotypes. Still, overall I found ‘Louis’ an entertaining and original read and have since sought out more of Jensen’s work.

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