A Family Timebomb by Joel Rickett
How did Louis Drax, a deeply disturbed, accident-prone nine-year-old, plunge
from a cliff at a family picnic? And why did he start to breathe again in a
French hospital morgue, hours after drowning? These are the mysteries at the
core of a taut psychological thriller by Liz Jensen, The Ninth Life of Louis
The book is a departure for Jensen, whose four previous novels Egg Dancing, Ark Baby, The Paper Eater and War Crimes for the Home could be loosely described as black comedies. 'This is my first grown-up book,' is how she describes it. 'But there is some humour in Louis, of a very dark kind.'
The novel opens with Louis's controlling voice: '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.' Precocious yet naive, he creates freakish stories and imaginary companions, and takes delight in tormenting his therapist.
'When I started writing Louis, I wanted him to be almost demonic, and for there to be a grain of doubt over whether he might be exercising a kind of supernatural power,' Jensen says. 'But he's not scary at all when you get to know him and realise what he's been through he's just extremely disturbed.'
The first shock for the reader is that Louis is narrating while in a coma. 'He's a very dead little boy, but his mind is fiercely and tenaciously alive. All you can see is a pale boy against a pillow, but there's all this stuff going on inside.'
Forest fires rage around the coma clinic in Provence, but the novel dwells in the subconscious worlds of Louis and his doctor, Pascal Dannachet, who gets deeply involved with the boy, and with his attractive mother Nathalie. 'I wanted to write a ghost story, a story about people haunting each other and manipulating each other's psyche. It is about the subconscious place that you don't want to visit getting out of control and taking over,' Jensen says.
The genesis of the plot, she explains, was in 'the first non-fiction story I ever heard'. When she was six, she asked her mother why she didn't have a grandmother. The answer was shockingly abrupt: 'She jumped off a cliff.'
The tragedy had taken place on a family holiday in Switzerland in the 1930s, when the eldest son Jensen's uncle had a furious argument with his mother and stormed out of the room. He did not return, and four days later Jensen's grandmother went out to join the search teams. She also failed to come back; the next morning they found her body at the bottom of a cliff. Jensen's uncle was never seen again.
Unsurprisingly, the events of that holiday haunted Jensen's mother for the rest of her life. 'She was convinced it was suicide, but I don't think the psychology works if you are looking for somebody, you don't suddenly give up and kill yourself. It is a mystery, and it is the basis of the book: a family outing in the mountains, somebody ending up at the bottom of a cliff, and the family being implicated in a way that isn't clear.'
Jensen says that some families can be 'timebombs', driven by destructive impulses. 'We never explore the ambivalence of parenthood. I wanted to write about a very sick parent-child relationship, its neediness and interdependency. I had to confront the things that I'm most scared of, and the things that we don't talk about in families.'
But while the book raises uncomfortable issues, its tight pacing and dramatic twists mean that it is not an overly harrowing read. 'A friend said he found it surprisingly uplifting, which pleased me. It was hard to write; I had to visit a very dark place. When you go into your subconscious you don't know what you'll come up with, and it can scare you sometimes. That's the risk you take as a writer, the challenge.'
The risk has already paid off: Ninth Life is likely to be brought to the screen at a rare speed. After a battle for film rights between Miramax and Warner Bros, Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, Cold Mountain) convinced Jensen that he had a coherent vision to translate the novel for the screen. Minghella is already working on the script, and Miramax/Mirage are hoping to start filming this year, with a possible release date of late 2005.
'I thought I'd written another book that won't be a film I thought it was impossible to film. Then Anthony Minghella said that he wanted to direct it himself, and I could see him doing something extraordinary with it. We were on the same wavelength.'
The sale has already changed Jensen's life (divorced and living in London, she has two sons). 'It is nice not to have that financial pressure any more.'
She is now writing a 'ridiculous light comedy' about two time-travelling cleaning ladies from Denmark, as the antidote to the experience of writing Ninth Life. But she knows that the likely success of the new book may put her under pressure to return to the genre. 'I will go back to psychological thrillers. But it is nice to be able to do what I want.'
© Joel Rickett. A version of this article first appeared in the Bookseller, 2 April 2004. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury USA.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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