Liz Jensen: The French patient

Liz Jensen's latest novel is about to hit the Hollywood big-time. The author tells Julie Wheelwright how a dark mystery within her own family inspired her
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The Independent Culture

Liz Jensen's life is on the cusp of great changes. The author of several critically acclaimed novels, including Ark Baby and War Crimes for the Home, and a single mother, Jensen has suddenly been thrust into the media stratosphere by director Anthony Minghella's forthcoming screen adaptation of her new book, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax (Bloomsbury, £16.99). Earlier this year, a bidding war erupted for the rights to the novel between the powerful studios Warner Brothers and Miramax. Miramax won, and Jensen has now been able to pay off her mortgage. Minghella, the director of Cold Mountain and The English Patient, calls her book "a remarkable suspense novel: tart, mysterious and wrenching".

She was shocked at the spurt of intense interest. "The funny thing was that I didn't think it would make a movie at all," she tells me over lunch in her sun-soaked garden in Wimbledon. "My agent and I joked about it."

The novel is narrated partly by a nine-year-old French boy who is lying in a coma state. It involves telekinetic communication, a parent who has a complicated and troubling relationship with the child, and seems unlikely material for the screen. But, after the success of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, perhaps Jensen has plugged into a cultural appetite for neurological mysteries. "There is a lot of interest in closed worlds," she says. "There is a kind of claustrophobia in my novel and I can see how a film-maker would use that."

From his bed in a Provençal hospital, Louis narrates an account of his death and resurrection. After falling from a cliff into a deep ravine while on a family picnic to celebrate his birthday, he is rescued and pronounced dead. At the morgue two hours later, he miraculously gains a toe-hold on life before lapsing into a coma.

The police suspect his father, who disappeared after Louis's fall, may have pushed him over the edge. Dr Dannachet, the specialist treating him, is determined to establish some line of communication with his young patient. His mother Natalie, a woman harbouring terrible secrets, remains in deep shock.

With Minghella's adaptation set to launch Jensen on an international career, comparisons have already been made with JK Rowling's post-Potter move out of the genteel poverty of an Edinburgh housing estate. With a wave of her hand, Jensen dismisses these. Like all novelists, she has struggled financially, but since her divorce three years ago, she says that the father of her two sons has remained very involved. The boys divide their time between his house and hers.

When Jensen's sons are away, she is often in Copenhagen visiting her new partner, the Danish novelist Carsten Jen- sen. She plans to spend more time there. "We can't live together because he has one child and I have two, so we make a virtue of necessity and see each other as often as we possibly can, which is one week in three." They met at a literary festival in Ottawa three years ago, kept up a steady e-mail romance and, when they began to read each other's work, fell in love.

Sharing a surname with her new partner is just the sort of extraordinary mystery that seems to run like a bright thread through Jensen's life. Her father was a Danish violin-maker who fell in love with her Anglo-Moroccan mother when they happened to meet at a youth hostel in Avignon. Jensen grew up in deepest Oxfordshire, feeling more European than English. "I think my Dad was a good friend, a great person, but you could never have held him up as a classic example of fatherhood," she says. "He was more like a bloke who lived in the house. My father was a complete child all his life and wonderful for it."

Her mother, a librarian, was the serious one. It is her story that inspired Jensen to write The Ninth Life of Louis Drax. Jensen's grandfather, a Moroccan merchant, had died in England, leaving his wife with four children, including her mother. Jensen, who at the age of six knew her mother was an orphan, asked what had become of her grandmother. The answer was that no one knew.

On a family holiday near Lake Lucerne in 1937, the eldest son, Leslie Corcos, a 19-year-old Cambridge undergraduate, had argued with his mother, Gertrude, and stormed off into the mountains. Hours passed, Gertrude became distraught and called out a search party. Three days went by with no news and then clouds closed in, so the search was called off.

Gertrude insisted on going to look for Leslie herself, leaving the remaining children at the hotel. "My mother, then aged 11, remembers most of all standing on a balcony. There was a lot of mist and there were these dogs barking. They were police dogs searching for her brother but it was the mother they found."

Gertrude's body was found lying at the bottom of a ravine and Leslie was never seen again. "It's never been solved; it haunted my mother and it haunted the remaining children, who never knew exactly what happened. Did the mother slip and fall or jump? My mother got it into her head that she jumped, and so she lived under that shadow and all the guilt that comes with it. Even in her seventies, she doesn't like to talk about it. But I made her," says Jensen with a grin.

The family had no ending to their story and so, through Louis Drax, Jensen has constructed an elaborate fictional one. "That's the great thing about stories, you can give them a proper shape, you can explain things," she says. "I think novels impose an order on what is messy and chaotic and militantly un-story shaped." In Louis Drax, like much of Jensen's other fiction, family secrets are exposed to culminate in tragedy or catharsis.

In her previous novel, War Crimes for the Home, which opened as a stage play in London last month, the irascible 79-year-old narrator, Gloria, spends her days at the nursing home indulging in geriatric sex and trying to forget that, long ago, she murdered her infant daughter. "That was a story written from the point of view of parents, Louis Drax is about abuse written from the point of view of a child, which is much more harrowing to read and much more harrowing to write," she says. "It forces you to go to places you don't really want to go."

Louis is a highly intelligent, deeply disturbed child, barely likeable and given to proclaiming a "Right of Disposal" while he tortures his hamsters. His psychiatrist misreads his symptoms and there is the eerie suggestion that, even in a coma, Louis may still be using psychic powers to manipulate the adults surrounding him.

Although Louis speaks directly and appears very angry, Jensen says he is an expert at self-delusion. He comes to believe he alone is responsible for all the appalling accidents that have befallen him: the salmonella poisoning, the screw he once swallowed, his fall onto the tracks of the Lyon metro. Louis, despite his unconscious state, seems possessed of a destructive power. "This is a novel about the way people haunt each other, in life and in death. They infect each other's brains, they get inside each other. I was very interested in the doctor and Louis finding a way to communicate that involves this infection." The result is that Dr Dannachet, in his dream-like state, is guided by Louis to write an accusatory letter to Natalie that sets off a chain of terrible events.

Jensen has written such a neatly constructed drama that the mystery of Louis's trauma is stretched taut until the final scenes. Although Louis's father is the one who has aroused police suspicions as a potential murderer, from early on in the novel Natalie is revealed as a less than perfect mother. But in her suffering over Louis, she is deeply attractive to Dr Dannachet, a rather plodding scientist whose marriage has silted up with boredom.

"There's a certain kind of man who always goes for a certain kind of woman," says Jensen. "Some men feel much more powerful if they're with a woman who needs their help, who doesn't appear to have wounds that are self-inflicted but ones that are inflicted by society."

Jensen laughs as she observes that as she becomes happier, her novels become darker. "I'm going into the psychology that my earlier books have avoided, with the exception of Egg Dancing. I don't know why that is but I'm sure a psychologist would like to investigate why I chose to write a book about abusive parents." Perhaps it's a measure of Jensen's current state of blissful happiness that, for her next novel, she is writing about a child who murders his parents.

Biography: Liz Jensen

Liz Jensen was born in Wheatley, Oxfordshire in 1959. Her mother's family of Sephardic Jews were immigrants from Morocco and her father was Danish. Jensen won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied English before working for a year as a journalist in Hong Kong. She became a BBC graduate trainee, working in news and current affairs, then making features at Radio 4. In 1987, she moved to Lyon with her husband where she began to sculpt. Her first novel, Egg Dancing, was started in 1989 and published in 1995 after the birth of her second son. While working at Radio 4, she wrote Ark Baby and her third novel, The Paper Eater. Her previous novel, War Crimes for the Home, was long-listed for the Orange prize and has been adapted for the stage. Her new novel, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, is published by Bloomsbury and will be filmed by Anthony Minghella. Liz Jensen lives in Wimbledon, London.