The Character of Rain is a novella written by Belgian author Amélie Nothomb (picture to the left). She writes her novels in French, which have been translated into English.
The first two pages of this book had me wishing I could scratch my eyes out. I was sure I was going to hate it and I’d have such a hard time reading it within six days.
If it hadn’t been a novella I had to read for University then I probably wouldn’t have ever carried on reading past the first two pages. Actually, I never would’ve even picked up the book, but that’s neither here nor there.
So, pressured to read this for my Tuesday fiction class I had to power through the appalling beginning. The novella starts with a rambling about God. This is a direct quote from the first page: “God’s eyes were perpetually wide open and staring, though it didn’t matter whether they were opened or closed. There was nothing to see, and God, plump and compact as a hard-boiled egg, saw nothing.” I kid you not, that is a direct quote. I mean, what the hell is that? Sorry Nothomb, but if your intention was to put any and all readers off continuing to read this, then you bloody well succeeded.
I got through the first chapter (which is only three pages long) extremely slowly. It’s what happens when I’m undeniably bored and disinterested by what I’m reading. Then, the most extraordinary thing happened. I started to enjoy it. The second chapter became more bearable and by the third chapter I was becoming interested in the plotline.
I finished the book in two days, granted it was only 132 pages long, but you honestly have no idea how amazing that is for me. I’m a ridiculously slow reader. Usually I can only get through about 30-40 pages a day and that’s when I’m constantly reading. But I actually really enjoyed the novel, like really enjoyed it.
The blurb states: “The Japanese believe that until the age of three, children are gods, each one an okosama, or ‘Lord Child’. On their third birthday they fall from grace and join the rest of mankind. Narrated by a child – from the age of two and a half up until her third birthday – this novel reveals how this fall from grace can be a very difficult thing indeed from which to recover.”
Sounds interesting right? I thought so.
After the excruciatingly long and terrible beginning, I completely forgot what the novella was supposed to be about. Therefore I kept reading, forgetting what was supposed to be happening. It was only after finishing it, it occurred to me something was missing. The plot.
As the blurb states it’s supposed to reveal how when a child reaches the age of three, they fall from grace in the eyes of the Japanese and the affect this has on a child. At first, I didn’t see this occur anywhere in the novel, I believed the realisation of Rain not being God would come from how her family and her nanny treat her after her third birthday. It confused me when all the relationships stayed the same and I believed Nothomb had completely ignored her own plot. It was only after an in depth discussion in my fiction class that I realised most of what we get out of this novella is subtext. Hardly anything is explicitly said, merely referenced through other things and we as a reader, have to depict these elements within the novella.
If you couldn’t already guess I’m going to depict some of these elements for you. If you don’t want to hear any spoilers, then skip to the last paragraph in this post now.
Nothomb grazes over the month of May, in which many Japanese families buy some carp to look after for the month. It is supposed to bring luck for having a baby boy. Rain’s parents do look after some carp for that month and this is when Rain is discovering the Japanese seem to favour boys over girls, almost making boys seem more divine and godlike than girls. It is one of the many connections to her realising she is not a God.
If you don’t look in depth into the meaning behind this novel, this next quote can be easy to miss. “At three, you’re like an alien, equally fascinated and terrified by what you find. Everything is opaque and new. You must invent laws based upon your own observation”. She directly says as a child you have to invent your own laws because everything is new to a child, everything is opaque. You don’t yet understand the world you’re living in and therefore you have to make sense of it in your own way. From the treatment of her nanny Nishio-san treating her almost as if she was a God and could do no wrong, she has grown up with Nishio-san more than anyone and now believes she is a God and other people should treat her so. This novella is her journey and how she came to believe she was a God, she thought she was divine and then suddenly realising that she is indeed like everybody else and that utter devastation she feels towards the end.
In the last chapter of the novella, she mentions how she sees the carp’s insides and she says: “You find that repugnant? That’s what your stomach is like, too.” This is her sudden realisation that she’s just like everybody else and she isn’t a God. She silences herself; she doesn’t want to hear that she’s not a god. It throws her so much she is sick and let’s herself fall into the pool. This is ironic for many reasons:
- Previously in the novella, she almost drowned.
- Her father got stuck in a drain.
- Her name in either Japanese or French means rain.
- It is suggested that in Japanese culture that drowning is seen as the most divine form of suicide.
All of these things are definitely not mere coincidences. Nothomb is a master of disguise and subtext. She really makes you work to depict these elements.
In general, it was interesting to find connections between the writer’s personal life and the novella. Nothomb herself says from personal experience she was indirectly told she was ugly by her family and she hated herself for so long, always seeing this ugly person in the mirror. In connection to the novella, Rain doesn’t want to hear she isn’t divine, but there is a part of her mind that is telling her this and forcing her to believe it, much like Nothomb believing she was ugly (when as you can see by the picture at the top of this post, she is anything but).
Despite a disappointing beginning, the rest of the novella is brilliantly written, and the character development of Rain borders on genius. If you can stomach the first couple of pages, then I guarantee you will enjoy the rest of the novella.
@mustbejlb (on Instagram and Twitter)
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