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the Complete Review
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(Breathing Underwater)

Marie Darrieussecq

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To purchase Undercurrents

Title: Undercurrents
Author: Marie Darrieussecq
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 114 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Undercurrents - US
Breathing Underwater - UK
Undercurrents - Canada
Le Mal de mer - Canada
Le Mal de mer - France
  • French title: Le Mal de mer
  • Translated by Linda Coverdale
  • US Title: Undercurrents
  • UK title: Breathing Underwater

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Our Assessment:

B- : lyrical, elusive tale -- with too much undertow

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A 21/5/2001 Sam Leith
The Guardian A+ 19/5/2001 Alex Clarke
The Independent . 22/6/2001 Amanda Hopkinson
Libération . 11/3/1999 Antoine de Gaudemar
The LA Times A 7/5/2001 Merle Rubin
The Observer A+ 13/5/2001 Nicola McAllister
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A Summer/2001 D. Quentin Miller
The Times A+ 9/6/2001 Francis Gilbert
TLS . 18/5/2001 Brian Dillon
VLS . 5/2001 Emily White
World Lit. Today . Winter/2000 Maryann De Julio

Note that in her review in The Independent Amanda Hopkinson raves about Linda Coverdale, "a translator who clearly (on her third translation of Marie Darrieussecq) so closely corresponds with her author that she now corresponds to her". But Ms. Coverdale has only translated one other book by Marie Darrieussecq (Pig Tales); My Phantom Husband was, in fact, translated twice into English, by two different translators. Neither of them was (or corresponded to) Linda Coverdale.

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Darrieussecq's prose is, in Coverdale's excellently written translation, poetic, immersive, sensuous. Scoured clean of specifics -- none of the locations or main characters is given a name; direct speech is absent -- it washes from voice to voice and sense impression to sense impression with a studied languor. (...) (W)e are given a collage of moods and scenes passing like weather. It's the sort of thing that would be infuriating if done less well than this." - Sam Leith, Daily Telegraph

  • "In fact, this novel proceeds more like a dream than anything else. It's full of moments that don't add up -- a passing reference, for example, to a cat tied up in a bag and dropped from the balcony -- and disconcerting, fractured symbolism. At its back are the hints of real-life tension, as an enigmatic private detective circles and observes, and the clock ticks towards the end of the short-term holiday let." - Alex Clarke, The Guardian

  • "Darrieussecq's first novel, Pig Tales, had a masseuse evolve gradually into the pig of the title as part of a stomach-churning satire on power-politics and double standards. This one is gentler and mellower, reflective as the ocean which provides its flow of imagery." - Amanda Hopkinson, The Independent

  • "Marie Darrieussecq mêle onirisme et précision, fantastique et géographie. Elle manifeste toujours aussi peu de goût pour le sentiment et autant d'attrait pour la métamorphose, qui prend ici un tour plus tellurique, entomologique (.....) Dans un style encore épuré, toujours inquiet, l'auteur affronte une nouvelle fois le vide du temps. Au risque, toutefois, que ce ressac obsédant devienne un ressassement." - Antoine de Gaudemar, Libération

  • "In place of psychology, morality, insight or social criticism, Darrieussecq has given us a mesmerizing world of sensations and impressions." - Merle Rubin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Darrieussecq's descriptive powers have, in her previous work, leaned towards self-indulgence. Breathing Underwater has no such flaw and responds, however subtly, to the questions it poses. (...) Darrieussecq is at the height of her powers; complex and deliberately, maddeningly mysterious, she is not always easy, and in that lies her brilliance: her gifts are dazzling." - Nicola McAllister, The Observer

  • "The language is dazzling and precise, and the reader is able to enter the characters' inner lives through this language which accurately evokes sense perception and memory. (...) Although it is experimental, Undercurrents is well worth reading not simply because it succeeds in attempting something different, but rather because of its rich artistic achievement." - D. Quentin Miller, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "The pleasure comes with the way in which she allows the reader to slip into moments of transcendence and grace. (...) The writing, translated by Linda Coverdale, has the intensity of poetry and, as a consequence, what at first sight might seem like a very short book -- it consists of only 117 pages and printed in big type -- in fact takes a long time to read." - Francis Gilbert, The Times

  • "Breathing Underwater is an unsettling addition to the literature of seaside unease. (...) Everything in this novel is falling apart, coming adrift. Salt water erodes surfaces, rust blossoms on window frames, concrete cracks, a collapsing cliff dominates the seafront. (...) Breathing Underwater is haunted by this notion that the seascape is the scene of both erosion and accretion, obliteration and recollection." - Brian Dillon, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Darrieussecq constantly loses the reader, abandoning one point of view for another in the middle of the page. Often you don't know whose house or apartment you're in, but you trust that sooner or later such mysteries will become clear. (...) In this brilliantly unreliable novel the earth moves, but the shaking ground can't compete with a mind full of confusion and dreams." - Emily White, Voice Literary Supplement

  • "Sensation and rhythm drive the narrative to such an extent that none of its story lines come together for very long, and complete understanding remains elusive. (...) Whatever action there is in this story of powerful but unfocused emotion and interrelationships is subordinate to the presence of the sea and its effect on all the characters." - Maryann De Julio, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Marie Darrieussecq has trouble with her titles. At least in translation. Her debut, Truismes (see our review), is known in English as Pig Tales. A clever title, certainly, but given that the French title can readily literally be translated (yes, "truismes" even comes from the English word and means exactly what you would expect it to mean: "truisms"), it is -- even with the swinish pun found in the original -- a misleading choice. One that is not much helped by the subtitle of "a novel of lust and transformation".
       The English-language publishers of Darrieussecq's follow-up, Naissance des fantômes (see our review), were so unsure about how to translate it they did it twice: Esther Allen produced a version for The New Press in America, while Helen Stevenson made one for Faber & Faber in the UK. One thing they did agree on was the title they would use: My Phantom Husband. Which at least uses one of the words from the French title -- though even those who only had a year of high school French will notice that that word is in the plural in French. "Birth of the Phantoms", or "Origin of the Phantoms" would already be somewhat closer to Darrieussecq's actual meaning -- but when did that ever count for anything ?
       Now comes Le Mal de mer. Which is actually a very clever little title. It literally means "Seasickness". Unavoidably, however, one also reads the apposite Le Mal de mère into it.
       This time the English-language publishers couldn't agree on a translation for the title: The New Press chose the reasonably clever Undercurrents. Faber & Faber went with Breathing Underwater. (Both versions were, however, translated by Linda Coverdale.)
       Wordplay is tough to translate, and the choices can be considered reasonable enough. But readers should keep these linguistic contortions and compromises in mind when reading Darrieussecq's work in English. She constanyly plays with language and style, relying on it a great deal for effect -- and that doesn't always come across in translation. At least not in the way intended -- consider Penny Heuston's bizarre "praise" (in The Age) of the translation of My Phantom Husband: "I found a number of passages more suave and evocative in Helen Stevenson's English than the none the less elegant but plain French original".
       Undercurrents / Breathing Underwater is a carefully written novel, heavy on the style, fairly light on story. Unlike her two earlier novels, it is not written in the first person. As in her previous novels, the central characters remain unnamed.
       A failed relationship stands at the center of the story. A woman leaves her husband, taking their daughter with her. She empties out the bank account and flees, finally settling down in a seaside resort where it is still off-season.
       The husband wants to find her. Or at least his daughter. A detective is engaged, who tracks them down. A variety of figures appear, surfacing as the focus, then fading into the background.
       "She hesitates, and her feet slip on the steep sand." The woman struggles throughout. For a type of freedom. But it is all ill-defined, often dreamy. Few of the characters are able to speak with any sort of certainty (conversation is strikingly absent from the novel), to convey their wants and needs. Little is expressed clearly. The scenes, like the sands, keep shifting.
       And there is that ocean and that sea ("the ocean has become the sea"), always all around. Darrieussecq likes to use nature and science for effect. Not everyone will be equally impressed by how she goes about it.
       It is a peculiar type of story, and it won't be to everyone's taste. Some might find it evocative, compelling, touching. We didn't. At least not particularly. Readers should be aware of what they are getting themselves into.

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Le Mal de mer: Reviews: Marie Darrieussecq: Other books by Marie Darrieussecq under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       French author Marie Darrieussecq was born in 1969. She is a graduate of the Ecole Normale Supérieure and has written several acclaimed novels.

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