Sunday 11 March 2012

This is Life by Dan Rhodes

This is Life is a novel set in France. Correction, it is set in Paris. Correction, it is set in the cartoon version of Paris that movies like Hugo,The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec and Ratatouille are set in. (I know Amelie is missing on this list, but that's because Amelie has genuine magic, whereas the other movies just have the right sort of colours and tone, without feeling really magically French at heart.)

The book centres around Aurelie and various acquaintances and connections. Aurelie is an arts student, who, for her project, throws a pebble into a crowd find a subject she intends to draw pictures of for a week. The pebble hits a baby. After a brief telling-off, the mother of the baby hands it over and tells her to meet her again, exactly one week later, to return it, while she takes the week off.

Other stories are about an artist who is about to spend three months nude on stage, storing every bodily excretion in visible jars, and the story of Aurelie's friend Lilian who is so amazingly attractive that all men fall in love with her. Lilian breaks their hearts while searching for the one true love.

There is no shred of reality in this book: it's all sugarcoated and coloured with cartoonish glee. Which can work (and did, in Dan Rhodes' Little Hands Clapping), sometimes.

In This is Life, it does not work. There is a constant smirk on the narrative voice's face, a distant and slightly annoying tongue in cheek, lambasting artists, academics, arts students, the French, the French president, the Euro, women, the Japanese, romantically inclined men, ... basically, anyone and everyone in this book. More than once you will find yourself reading characters having conversations or thoughts that are basically an author, making a point / having a rant. The only character who is not annoying or being mocked is Herbert, the baby, and he has immaculate comic timing, blowing raspberries at just the right moment. (A strangely happy baby - he rarely seems to fuss and whinge and cry). In short, we are reading something that is written with a slightly superior tone throughout, and this grates.

It's all perfectly readable and not boring, but it lacks real joy. This is the sort of book that, were it a movie, would feature lots of music to induce the emotions it wants you to have, and a warm and cosy, but rich, colour palette, and somehow, in all the hubbub and cutesiness, some people may be convinced they are having a good time. And maybe, for other readers, it will work. For me, it did not. (Neither, I should say, did Hugo, the film. I get the strong sense that anyone who likes Hugo would also enjoy This is Life).

Rating: 3/5

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