The Life of Hunger
Faber & Faber, 9.99
THE child inhabiting the world of The Life of Hunger is a peculiar little girl, who may (or may not) be the author Amelie Northomb. The book's dust jacket describes The Life of Hunger as a "wistful, funny, clever, and eccentric fictional memoir".
The 'hunger' of the title is a terrifying thing - not simply the need for food, but a hunger for everything. "By hunger, I mean that terrible lack within the whole being, the gnawing void, the aspiration not so much to a utopian plenitude as to simple reality: where there is nothing, I beg for there to be something."
Strange and precocious, the protagonist, like many highly intelligent children, sees nothing particularly extraordinary in her superior intellect. We learn she reads The Count of Monte Cristo at an impressively young age. The best that this reviewer could manage, at 11, was The Valley of the Dolls.
Almost fatalistically, she sees that her charmed life will change, and not necessarily for the better. She fully expects that she won't live past 12, and concludes that this is a good age to die. As if to reinforce this view, in Nepal she witnesses the plight of the Living Goddess, a little girl chosen at birth "on the basis of a thousand criteria - astrological, karmic, social, etc. The baby immediately attained the rank of divinity."
After 12 years of unimaginable luxury, the Little Goddess is cast out into the world. "The temple of the Living Goddess brought me face to face with a truth that had been mine since the very beginning: it was at the age of 12 that little girls were banished."
Having expected not to see it, the age of 13 hits the protagonist like a steam train. Perhaps inevitably and perhaps due to her uncanny cleverness, she discovers there is a way to control her wayward and ugly form.
She decides to starve it into submission. By the age of 15, she weighs approximately 70 pounds. "Because there was no more food, I decided to devour every word in existence: I read a dictionary from beginning to end."
As self-absorbed and ill as she was, however, her brain still worked.
"The brain consists essentially of fat. The most noble human thoughts are born in fat. To avoid losing my brain, I feverishly translated The Iliad and The Odyssey."
At 15 she also reaches a turning point and accepts that she is not meant to die. Yet. The reader might wonder if the cure for anorexia nervosa is truly as simple as a decision to eat again, and there are many tragic examples that suggest that it certainly is not.
However, as this is described as a "fictional memoir", perhaps the magical "cure" is best taken with a pinch of salt, or sugar.
"If God ate, he would eat sugar;" and he might look down kindly and sympathetically on this lovely, very eccentric story which may, or may not, be the story of Amelie Northomb's teenage years.
The Life of Hunger revels in dexterous and intelligent language, which soars and swoops and gathers the reader in the wake of its magical journey. True or not, who cares?