I have only read one of French author Marie Darrieussecq’s novels to date, All the Way, but I found it rather too offbeat and strange for my personal taste, and was not overly enamoured with it. Her newest offering to have been translated into English by Penny Hueston, however, sounded most interesting. Whilst still not a fan by any means of science fiction, I have been reading a few dystopian tomes of late, and thought I would give Our Life in the Forest a go.
Its blurb states that the novel will challenge ‘our ideas about the future, about organ-trafficking, about identity, clones, and the place of the individual in a surveillance state.’ Le Monde promises that ‘the reader will be captivated’; The Observer calls Darrieussecq’s talent ‘dazzling’; and Liberation writes: ‘… reducing this book to a dystopian tale is doing it a disservice… A journal from beyond the grave, as time runs out… And a profound novel about loneliness.’
Set in the near future, ‘a woman is writing in the depths of a forest. She’s cold. Her body is falling apart, as is the world around her. She’s lost the use of one eye; she’s down to one kidney, one lung. Before, in the city, she was a psychotherapist, treating patients who had suffered trauma… Every two weeks, she travelled out to the Rest Centre, to visit her “half”, Marie, her spitting image, who lay in an induced coma, her body parts available whenever the woman needed them.’ This woman, our narrator, has fled to the forest along with many other people, ‘as a form of resistance against the terror in the city.’ Their halves live in the forest with them, and have to be taught how to function as humanly as is possible. Only the privileged have halves, too; those who cannot afford the full body clones which can be used for organ replacement and the like, have jars, which are filled with just a few organs. Those who cannot afford the jars have no help or assurance at all.
Whilst introducing her plight, the narrator admonishes herself: ‘Time to get a grip. I have to tell this story. I have to try to understand it by laying things out in some sort of order. By rounding up the bits and pieces. Because it’s not going well. It’s not okay, right now, all that. Not okay at all.’ She then goes on to describe her physical body, and the ways in which it has begun to fail her. From the outset, she has an awareness of her own mortality: ‘I’m not in good shape. I won’t have time to reread this. Or to write a plan. I’ll just write it as it comes.’ She is, she tells her audience, ‘writing in order to understand, and to bear witness – in a notebook, obviously, with a graphite pencil (you can still find them).’
Interestingly, the halves which belong to the characters are the only beings here which are given names. None of the living protagonists, or those whom the narrator briefly comes into contact with, are really identifiable from the mass. Using this technique, Darrieussecq ensures that her novel is at once anonymous and intimate. It feels almost as though the crisis which she has created has befallen everyone, without exception. Indeed, the narrator assumes that we know parts of her story, and have an understanding of the changed world which she lives in, already.
The world building in Our Life in the Forest is effective in many ways, but there are certainly a few elements which could have done with more explanation. To me, a relative newcomer to the dystopian genre, I found some elements to be far more interesting than others. Our Life in the Forest has been quite intricately crafted, and a lot of thought has clearly gone into the plausibility of scenes and settings. However, there is an emotionless quality to it, which in turn creates a kind of detachment. I found my reading experience to be interesting enough, but to me, the novel was not wholly satisfying.