Breathing Underwater by Marie Darrieussecq
Marie Darrieussecq's unique and beautiful book Breathing Underwater (Le Mal de mer) is a breathtaking display by a young novelist whose previous two works had already marked her out as a serious and sensual writer of some power. Pig Tales (reminiscent of Alina Reyes' erotica, particularly The Butcher) was the enormously successful story ('literary' erotica by young, French woman popular? how strange!) of a woman's transformation into a sow, a bizarre but telling fairy tale that spoke intelligently about gender, identity, sexuality and change. Phantom Husband (Naissance des fantomes) was a compelling and disturbing drama: a woman's husband disappears one day, no word, no reason why. How, in such a position of absence, without the fact of loss, does one carry on and cope? And what does grieving mean without its object? Breathing Underwater, despite its apparent slightness (these are slight the way an author as brilliant as Marguerite Duras is slight), builds on and further investigates these themes and is an absolute triumph.
The main voice in the book, an unnamed young mother, walks out on her husband and her life (a situation that is almost the direct inversion of that in Phantom Husband). She takes herself and her daughter to the seaside. She escapes, although we don't really know what from. And in the most fluid, elegant, unhurried, aqueous prose-poetry she, her mother and her daughter are all seen succumbing, surviving and changing. Darrieussecq bravely eschews any temptation to psychoanalyse her characters or to moralise about them. We, as readers, are simply invited to observe. And despite the heat-haze, the blinding brightness of the sun, the enervating heat, what we observe are the slow, languid transformations that the coast evokes. There is a sensuality somehow embedded in this writing and a wonderful intelligence. Breathing Underwater almost defies description: limpid but with a compelling ambiguity, often it is only toward the end of an often long paragraph that we know who has spoken; enigmatic and allusive but also lucid, simple and direct. This is writing of the highest standard but, more importantly perhaps, a lovely, very affecting, lambent treat of a novel.