Books: Man of mystery

My Phantom Husband by Marie Darrieussecq, trans. Helen Stevenson Faber & Faber, pounds 9.99, 192pp; Amanda Hopkinson joins the quest for a disappearing mari
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The Independent Culture
A MAN vanishes from home. To all who know him, it is entirely out of character that he should descend from the fifth-floor seaside apartment he inhabits with his wife, ostensibly to buy the usual baguette from the corner bakery, and simply never return. But to determine what would or would not be in character for this apparently prosaic estate-agent (who leaves behind an unexpectedly large amount of money but no clue as to a motive), we have only the words of others to go on.

His enfeebled mother and ferocious mother-in-law concur that, although not gifted, he was extremely nice. The police airily concede that 200 people a day go missing in France, but remain respectfully silent in "keeping their adultery statistics to themselves". Jacqueline, the voluble best friend who alone attempts to make sense of the situation, makes the most nonsense.

According to his bereft wife, the narrator of Marie Darrieussecq's second novel, "Not only was my husband possibly a spy (a revolutionary, a traitor, a martyr, an assassin, a hero, a psychopath, the future patron saint of estate agents) but also... bound only to reappear, if at all... in small putrid lumps, by second-class mail". While others blame the loss on her inability to carry a child to term, she sinks into a state of "foetal senility". Alain Robbe-Grillet has written that existence is neither to be made sense of nor to be taken as a cosmic joke - it just is. And Jacqueline's speculations on the involvement of "the police, the Mafia, a powerful foreign cartel", all fail to offer a solution.

Yet the narrator's way, which is utter acceptance of her fate, leads her mind into vertigious decline. Her refusal to even name his disappearance, like her own lack of a name, draws her into an identification with the phantom that is her imaginary husband. As she sinks, the watery associations that flow through the book enfold her in horrific manifestations of death and drowning.

To her eyes only, the sea surrenders its random ransom of illegal immigrants, wrecked ships and beached creatures - sea lions eviscerated by underwater mines, "a stupid two-tonne shark... Was my husband presently decomposing in his own digestive juices? The thought almost made me laugh."

This is the story of a woman not waving, but drowning. As in Darrieussecq's bestseller Pig Tales, the protagonist is in the grip of a terrifying and presumably permanent transformation. That in turn serves as a useful satire on the porcine madness of a complacent nation incapable of self-reflection. Something fishy in one coastal resort (modelled on Darrieussecq's native Bayonne?) invokes the stench of ubiquitous decay.

And the erstwhile "solidly immutable shape of my husband"? He remains, throughout the book, a present absence and an absent presence.