Books: How a ghost can damage your health

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My Phantom Husband

by Marie Darrieussecq

Faber pounds 9.99

A man comes back from work one evening and goes out again to buy bread. His wife waits at the window for him until it goes dark, then she waits all night and all the next night and the night after that. He never returns.

The police investigators suggest that he might have run away with "beautiful blondes" (to which the wife, the unnamed narrator, privately scoffs, "as if I wasn't a beautiful blonde myself"). The wife veers from thinking he's been "flattened by a bus" to "he'd just temporarily gone mad"; from him being the victim of a kidnap (fearing her door will be broken down "and my husband's assailants bring in his earlobe wrapped in newspaper") to believing herself to be to blame.

Darrieussecq made her mark two years ago with Pig Tales, the strange and discomforting story of a young masseuse who turns into a sow. It was a instant bestseller in Darrieussecq's native France, and critics all over the world fell over themselves to bandy around words like "modern classic" and "Kafkaesque". On her first night alone, the woman in becomes scared of the dark but refuses to switch on the light because, she tells us, that would be "giving substance to the shadows". This is exactly what Darrieussecq's writing does - animate and illuminate the margins of existence, those parts of life other writers cannot or do not want to reach.

Where Pig Tales catalogued each specific stage of metamorphosis, examines each minute alteration the woman undergoes. Darrieussecq is interested in the physicalness of experience: the narrator's melding from disbelief into grief into loss is communicated by intimately documented shifts in her physical state of being: "I tried to rid myself ... of the choking anxiety which now occupied every last part of me, seeming to inflate every time I moved, like a fluid released by my own energy."

She is hypersensitive, hyperaware, everything she sees and hears amplified beyond normal perception. Her external environment has taken on a malevolent, feral quality, becoming a cacophony of colours, textures and noises: "my tears soaked the rice paper [of the wedding album], which furred up under my fingers"; "I could see the room next door getting brighter. I blinked. It was as though something had just exploded silently, without so much of a bang." It's hardly a surprise, then, when she begins to see apparitions of her absent husband.

Her life is exhausting and debilitating, and unfortunately that's not unlike the the effect this book has on the reader. The book is low on plot, and dialogue, which is always incorporated into the narrative flow. What you get here is 152 pages of dense, detailed, unrelenting prose on the different stages of grief. Darrieussecq has an unfortunate habit of inserting extremely long parentheses into her sentences. These often contain wonderings and wanderings of a metaphysical nature extraneous to the sense of the sentence, and put too much strain on the reader's already challenged attention span. Which is a shame because there is much here to admire. Darrieussecq's writing is artful and fresh; she just needs to be a little easier on her readers.

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