Our Life in the Forest: Marie Darrieussecq

★★½

The future. Near? Distant? It’s hard to say. A woman writes in an old notebook in a forest, hurrying to get everything down. She’s cold, tired, falling to pieces. She and her companions are fugitives from the status quo and the government will find them, soon. They’ve done their best, but is that enough? What does it achieve? There isn’t much time but someone has to record the truth. And so this woman, formerly a psychologist, turns her gaze upon herself: her privileged position as one of the social elite, measured not by wealth or status but by the fact that she has a ‘half’, a clone, identical in all ways to herself, a second body kept in permanent sleep, yet always ready to replace any of her organs or body parts that malfunction. Hers is a story of gradual ethical awakening, of questioning, prompted by the arrival in her office one day of an unusual patient: the ‘clicker’. Darrieussecq’s novel is a curious beast: somewhat half-baked, somewhere along the line between sci-fi novel and ethical fable. It will inevitably be compared to Kashuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but differs in one crucial aspect: a lack of heart.

Darrieussecq’s narrator, herself called Marie, is writing for her contemporaries, not for the future. Naturally she jumps to conclusions about things they would know – about the way that the human body has been increasingly colonised by technology – about the way one can now search, scroll and read inside one’s own head, using one’s hands as mice to navigate – about the ecological situation – about the colonisation of other planets, mentioned once but never returned to. What stage of development are we at? What has mankind done to itself here on earth? How much remains? Why are people kept within cities? What’s out in the countryside? What is the Generation to which Marie keeps referring? (I think I understood this by the end, but it risks a huge spoiler, so I won’t say anything.) What I’m trying to get across is that there are more questions than answers, and one feels that Darrieussecq has conceived a really interesting future world in her own mind that she doesn’t then fully share with us. From another angle, you could argue that this makes the narration ‘authentic’: there’s no info-dumping and no long paragraphs of world-building. But, while there’s certainly such a thing as too much, there’s also the flip-side: not enough. And I felt as if I was seeing Darrieussecq’s world through a glass darkly, unable to grasp her heroine’s situation fully. Bizarrely it felt too short: a 300+-page novel that skated over the surface as if it were a novella.

The main theme of the story is the ‘halves’ or clones. The ‘lucky’ few who have such a clone are, eventually, allowed to visit them at the ‘Rest Centres’ where they spend their existence in drug-induced sleep. Marie has visited her own half, also called Marie, regularly from childhood, watching this mirror image of herself in a perpetual slumber. She has benefitted from a new lung and a new kidney and is waiting for a damaged eye to be replaced, though this is yet to be scheduled. That was then, of course. We know from the beginning of the book that, in the ‘now’ of the story, Marie and her rebel companions have managed to free some of the halves. But this raises new challenges. What’s to be done with them? The halves are underdeveloped mentally; they have to be taught to stand, walk and talk; they have an almost primitive sensibility. What makes a human being human? Where is the line between human, clone, robot or technologically enhanced human? And what happens next? Here again the novel leaves a gaping void. What’s the plan? Where will these rebels go? What do they want to achieve? Is their rebellion simply a last-ditch attempt to make a claim for full humanity, before mankind is subsumed into a semi-robotic state, bedazzled by implants and bionic additions? Do they have a long-term plan, or do they simply hope to die free?

I felt that too much was left open or unexplained for this to be a truly satisfying book – although perhaps it was just too intellectual and abstract for me to appreciate it. It has potentially interesting ideas and concepts, but we’re never able to explore them in any great depth and the characters aren’t engaging enough to compensate. While I felt Marie’s impotent fury rolling off the page, I didn’t really feel able to empathise with her, probably because I didn’t have enough of a handle on her world to really understand the stand she was making. The book may have more impact if you haven’t read Never Let Me Go, because that deals with similar things in a way that I personally found more engaging and thought-provoking. But this is only my opinion. It may simply require a second read in order to pick up on its greater subtleties – and one thing I will say: I have a horrible feeling that the future is more likely to look like Darrieussecq’s than Ishiguro’s.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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