The Stranger Next Door by Amelie Nothomb (Tr. Carol Volk)

December 3, 2009

Tony of Tony’s Book World said Amelie Nothomb is a “Must Read Author”. He said: “If you start to read her books, you will continue to read her books.” Apparently, The Complete Review gave him the scoop. Well, Tony is right.

This book warrants every point of the B that The Complete Review gives it. I think it just missed out on a B+. But, her other grades being what they were, Amelie threatened to be a one-woman grade-inflation-machine. The Complete Review got this one right which makes me eager for her higher scoring submissions.

The Stranger Next Door is a very odd book, though the premise is simple. A retired school teacher and his wife decide to move out to the country for the peace and solitude. They find their dream house, “the House”, and settle into their golden years. Their life is ideal.
Emile Hazel narrates his and Juliette’s experiences that first year in the country.

After one week in the House, we were convinced we had never lived anywhere else.

One morning, we took the car to the village to buy groceries. The store in Mauves was a delight to us: it didn’t sell much, and this absence of choice made us inexplicably joyful.

This is not a novel about planning a dinner party or a story about strolling through Kew Gardens, however. The same afternoon they return from the charming grocer, their neighbor comes to visit:

[A]t about four o’clock, someone knocked on the door.

I went to open it. It was a fat man who seemed older than I was.

“I’m Mr. Bernardin. Your neighbor.”

What could be more normal than a neighbor coming to make the acquaintance of new arrivals, particularly in a clearing consisting of two houses? His face, moreover, could not have been more ordinary. I remember, nonetheless, standing there frozen, confused, like Robinson upon his first encounter with Friday.

Emile is onto something. This is not just a neighbor, this is a stranger. Mr. Bernardin’s opening salvo is longer than any of his other utterances on that first visit, or the second, which occurs at precisely four o’clock the following day. The pattern is set.

The stranger, only made more strange by their knowing his name, continues his routine of arriving at four every afternoon. Emile and Juliette soon realize that he intends to continue visiting at that hour daily in perpetuity. This would not seem to be a major problem, only Mr. Bernardin rarely speaks and, when he does, is very concise. Emile and Juliette find this disconcerting, plus, they have no desire to be held captive to the punctual stranger next door.

Their first attempts to dissuade Mr. Bernardin’s neighborliness consist of attempted murder by kindness. When Mr. Bernardin perseveres, they try mocking him. Nothing seems to work and they cannot decide whether he is an imbecile or diabolical.

The question becomes more urgent and more difficult to answer when they finally meet Mrs. Bernardin. Mrs. Berardin and her situation become the impetus that sets in motion a series of startling plot developments, all of which serve Amelie Nothomb’s philosophical and moral purposes.

This novella is packed with delights which are humorous, grotesque, philosophical, and moral. Despite being so slight, the book is not an easy read. The prose is crisp, but the mood is unsettling for everyone, including the reader. Emile and Juliette and the reader have time to consider whether lack of choice really is “inexplicably joyful”, and the answer is driven home with the force and speed of thumb screws. The payoff is worth the wait, however, when deeper questions regarding manners and morals begin to demand answers.

Emile and Juliette are reactive characters, but circumstances eventually force them to choose. Husband and wife each answer in their own way, with serious consequences for both of them and for the Bernardins.

While this is not one of my favorite reads of the year, the originality of the story, the sprinkling throughout of literary, philosophical, and mythological references, the prose, the humor, and the weight all guarantee that I will try others of Ms. Nothomb’s works. If this is her worst, I am in for some treats.