The Stranger Next Door by Amélie Nothomb, translated by Carol Volk

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It was Tony‘s recommendation that encouraged me to read Amélie Nothomb, a Belgian writer who writes in French. I was impressed by Fear and Trembling, one of her autobiographical novellas and decided to try another of her novellas. This one edged out of my comfort zone and then lurched farther from it, but I made it through.

A retirement age couple who by the way had been married since they were children (what?) move to the countryside so they can have the peace, quiet and isolation they have always wanted. After a week of happiness in their house, the one nearby neighbor arrives at their house at 4:00 and stays until 6:00, answering questions with a single word, looking very angry at every turn. When it occurs again each night, there is much trying to understand what is happening, plotting to foil him, and soul-searching. The narrator (Emile, the husband) is unable to turn away the neighbor, and though Emile is rude, he cannot keep him away.

I learned many things about myself. For example, I hadn’t realized that I was a coward. In the forty years of teaching at the high school, I had never had to deal with the slightest commotion. The students respected me. I suppose that I benefited from a certain authority natural to teachers. But I had been wrong to deduce that I was one of the strong. In truth, I was one of the civilized in their company, I was entirely at ease. It had sufficed for me to find myself confronted with a brutish lout to see the limits of my power.

The narrator and his wife Juliette decide to invite the neighbor and his wife for dinner and we meet the enormous woman the narrator calls the cyst. Further description includes “tentacles,” “muffled grunts,” “octopus.” So now we are edging out of my comfort zone and I am, like the narrator, more and more uneasy. The lurch comes later after the neighbor tries to commit suicide, is saved by Emile, an act which Emile regrets. Emile then smothers the neighbor with a pillow and he believes this act was welcomed by the neighbor. He describes his wife’s reaction to the news of the neighbor’s death:

Thanks to her ignorance, she considers the death of our neighbor to be a good thing:  she would finally be able to care for Bernadette. The Bernardin home became bright, clean and airy. Every day my wife spends at least two hours with the cyst. She brings her cooked meals, flowers, and picture books. She often invites me to accompany her; I refuse, because the idea of witnessing Bernadette’s bath sends chills down my spine.

The book ends with the sentence: “I no longer know anything about myself.”

The writing is bright and clear with touch of distance and humor that makes you think of a friend telling a good story.

Amélie Nothomb, The Stranger Next Door, Henry Holt and Company, 1995, 152 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.

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