When it comes to popular parlance, love, to put it mildly, is a popular topic.
Whether we are falling into it, breaking up with it, celebrating its longevity or mourning its unexpected brevity, it consumes a lot of pop culture air.
For all that well-deserved ubiquity, one aspect of love that isn’t remarked up on as much as you might it to be, is what happens when love goes rancid, curdles if you like, in the heart or in its execution; in other words when something very good, that should be uplifting, encouraging and even recoverable from when your heart is broken, instead becomes something malevolent or darkly-realised.
The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen, fills in this void quietly, and yet dramatically, with the story of a 9 year old boy, the titular Louis, who exists in a world where love has taken on a nasty, violent hue, all outside evidence to the contrary.
If you were to look at the family of Pierre and Natalie Drax, and their son Louis, you would see a cosy, almost-nuclear family who take picnics in the countryside, go out outings to Disneyland Paris and who aspire to love, togetherness and a closeknit sense of belonging.
“I’m not most kids. I’m Louis Drax. Stuff happens to me that shouldn’t happen, like going on a picnic where you drown.
Just ask my maman what it’s like being the mother of an accident-prone boy and she’ll tell you. No fun. You can’t sleep, wondering when it’s going to end. You see danger everywhere and you think, Got to protect him, got to protect him. But sometimes you can’t.
Maman hated me before she loved me because of the first accident. The first accident was being born.” (P. 1)
But as the book unfolds, alternating between Louis’s perspective and that of those around him including, most prominently, Doctor Pascal Dannachet, it becomes unnervingly clear that there is something rotten in the house of Drax.
A bright, insightful, rabidly-intelligent child, Louis is obsessed with rapists, with suppressing his gender, and with the sort of twisted, very adult thoughts that a child of his age should not even be remotely concerned with.
His ferocity of expression and willingness to take on all comers, alarms many including his father Pierre, whose marriage to the very needy Natalie is not a happy one, and therapist Marcel Perez, who finds himself continues on the continual back foot with his quite unlikable young patient.
Louis is, to put it bluntly, a very unpleasant young man and there are times, many times, when you recoil from his brutish cruelty and lack of human norms; but as The Ninth Life of Louis Drax unfurls in slow burning, lo-fi melodramatic fashion, you come to understand why the young man is so damaged.
At heart, Louis is just a wounded kid; a deeply-wounded kid, in fact, who struggles to react to the competing paradigms and sick demands for love around him.
Much of his coiling, animalistically-restive emotional confusion (backed, it must be said, by naive but freakishly well-reasoned intelligence which never quite arrives at the right conclusions), is expressed in conversations with the mysterious figure of Gustave, a bandaged, clearly-ailing man who inhabits the netherworld of coma into which Louis is plunged after an “accident” which sees his family rent asunder.
As Pascal Dannachet tries to coax him from his coma, and falls in love with the desperately manipulative and emotionally-broken Natalie – the latter dynamic happens again and again with different men as Natalie, like some needy black widow spider, draws men into her orbit with spectacular but ultimately destructive ease – we come to understand how Louis sees the world in his own earnest, flawed way, and how everyone around him comes to see it.
“He’s holding my hand like Papa used to do. He’s slower than Papa though, because he’s got a limp. He’s all broken and thin from being hungry all the time, if you pushed him he’d fall over, he isn’t any stronger than a boy who’s only nine. If we had a fight I might win, I might even kill him by accident. That kind of thing can happen, trust me. Someone gets in a rage and they don’t know what they’re doing and they’re sorry afterwards but then it’s too late.” (P. 173)
As the police investigation into the accident rolls on, it becomes patently obvious that the yawning gulf between what love could be, and what it is aspired to be, and what it is actually expressed in Louis’s messed-up world, is the product of one person and their ability, which begins unraveling quite demonstrably as the story progresses, to skew the perspective of those around him.
There is a resolution of sorts at the end of The Ninth Life of Louis Drax – the title refers to his life in the coma which he finds infinitely preferable to the real one around him, a damning indictment of love in twisted form if ever there was one – but mostly the book concerns itself with a series of rapier-sharp internal monologues as everyone tries to process what is happening/has happened to Louis, what that means for them, and whether it is possible to come out the other side with anything that looks even remotely like love held in their possession.
This book then is a rumination on the quietly-ruinous nature of love gone wrong; how something so potentially beautiful and real and true, can instead become so disastrously awful, that it leaves far more victims than benefactors, victims so broken that even when there is some sort of resolution, are never quite the people they could have been if love, true love, had been allowed to run its course.