Marie Darrieussecq, Tom is Dead, trans. Lia Hills (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012 ); originally published in French as Tom est mort (Paris: P.O.L., 2007)
Marie Darrieussecq’s novel, Tom is Dead, has been translated from the French into several languages, including Italian, Danish, Dutch and Spanish in addition to English. The English translation by Lia Hills is excellent. Set in Australia, the novel represents the narrative of a bereaved mother who is writing about the aftermath of her son’s death, aged four-and-a-half, soon after the family’s move to Sydney ten years earlier. The novel became somewhat controversial in France, when French author Camille Laurens, at that time with the same publishing company as Darrieussecq, accused her of ‘plagiarising her psyche’. Laurens, who had published her text Philippe (1995) in the aftermath of the death at birth of her baby son, maintained that Darrieussecq should not write about maternal bereavement because she herself had not experienced it. In fact, the loss of a child (and the fear of such a loss) permeates Darrieussecq’s oeuvre and, although she personally has not lost a child, the theme apparently has biographical resonances in her family. Darrieussecq hit back with a major study of plagiarism, Rapport de police (2010) [Police Report], which is also a manifesto for creative writing and a defence of fiction in particular. Laurens’s published outburst, almost 20 years after the death of her own son, arguably says more about a bereaved maternal subjectivity and the ongoing impact of a child’s death on a parent than it does about plagiarism. In particular, it emphasises the sense of singularity of such a loss, the feeling that no one else can suffer as much or in the same way, and, moreover, it articulates the desire that this loss and its impact is singular.
Tom is Dead explores the long slow process of grief and mourning from the inside, from the mother’s memory of the bereavement and its aftermath. Only at the end of the book does the reader learn how Tom died. Darrieussecq excels in finding ways in her work to express the inexpressible, and in this novel, she experiments with a whole range of language effects, metaphors, images and formal strategies to evoke the mother’s state of mind at different stages of her grief. For example, in a moment akin to Proustian involuntary memory, the bereaved mother recovers her son’s presence in the smell of baby shampoo: ‘That smell, all of a sudden. Fourteen years on. And Tom was there, baby Tom, contained in the bottle. […] I open the bottle and I’m with Tom, at bath time in our apartment in Vancouver. At home. […] I open the bottle and I intoxicate myself with Tom. The past enclosed in the bottle. The past present, in the present, as soon as I open it. […] Tom is in this bottle. Time stops. A laughing mouth, a rubber duck, dark wet hair, steam. He’s there’ (67-68). Her son is of course only there in her mind but, to her, his presence is real. Likewise, in the long episode in the novel where she hears his voice calling Mummy and tries to record it, she believes she really is in communication with him: ‘I loved his calls. I stopped still. ‘Montre-toi.’ Show yourself. I thought these words intensely, so that he’d hear me’ (97). Here, the narrative attests to a state of grief and mourning in which the mother impossibly communicates with, and conjures up the presence of, her dead child, because she needs to.
The mother-narrator of Tom is Dead is a writer in the process of writing her account, and the novel is also a reflection on the role of writing. For her, writing is not a form of therapy, but an exploration of how to speak about her child’s death and its impact. Ten years on, she maintains that time does not heal, but that the pain of loss is just as intense if less frequent than in the immediate aftermath. Indeed, the question at the root of the narrator’s account – and Darrieussecq’s – is whether it is even possible to express a mother’s experience of the loss of her child, and if so how? She tells of how she struggled with what, for her, was a new language, vocabulary, and concepts brought about by the death of her son: the funeral rituals, what to do with the ashes, how to process that he has gone. She tries to comprehend – and express – how she survives and the impact the loss has on her identity: ‘Tom’s mother is gone. The one who Tom saw. The one I was in Tom’s eyes, born with Tom and for Tom’ (154). And, in her mind, Tom himself is also a victim of this fractured identity: ‘Sometimes I feel like I have had four children, Vince, Stella, Tom, and then dead Tom. Or in this order: Vince, Tom, Stella, and dead Tom’ (7). Ultimately, though, her writing is intended, she declares, to be a part of a maternal letting go, which is not the completion of mourning, but, rather, a form of acceptance, ‘to give [Tom] the right to his death’ (170), in the way she gives her elder son his independence as he flies off to spend a year in France.
Darrieussecq’s novel engages with one of the most difficult and poignant topics relating to motherhood, but it is in no way bathetic. Rather, it makes full use of literary techniques and language in order to explore and express the complexities, the ‘unnarratability’, of a mother’s traumatic and intimate experience of loss. Indeed, Laurens’s very outrage on reading the novel tragically attests to the success of Darrieussecq’s literary experiment.
Darrieussecq, Marie. Rapport de police: Accusations de plagiat et autres modes de surveillance de la fiction. Paris: P.O.L., 2010.
Laurens, Camille. Philippe. Paris: P.O.L., 1995.
----. ‘Marie Darrieussecq ou le syndrome du coucou’. La Revue Littéraire. (Autumn 2007).
See also:Rye, Gill. ‘No Dialogue? Mothers and Mothering in the Work of Marie Darrieussecq’. In Marie Darrieussecq. Ed. Helena Chadderton and Gill Rye. Special issue of Dalhousie French Studies 98. (Spring 2012).
Trout, Colette. ‘From Le bébé to Tom est mort: Writing the Unspeakable Terror of Motherhood’. In Marie Darrieussecq. Ed. Helena Chadderton and Gill Rye. Special issue of Dalhousie French Studies 98. (Spring 2012).