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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

My Phantom Husband

Marie Darrieussecq

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To purchase My Phantom Husband

Title: My Phantom Husband
Author: Marie Darrieussecq
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998 (Eng. 1999)
Length: 154 pages
Original in: French
Availability: My Phantom Husband - US
My Phantom Husband - UK
My Phantom Husband - Canada
Naissance des fantômes - Canada
Naissance des fantômes - France
Gespenster sehen - Deutschland
  • French title: Naissance des fantômes
  • The American edition was translated by Esther Allen
  • The British edition was translated by Helen Stevenson

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Our Assessment:

B- : vivid, ghostly description of loss

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age A 9/10/1999 Penny Heuston
The Independent B 14/7/2000 .
London Review of Books . 16/9/1999 James Peach
The LA Times . 4/7/1999 S.S. Reynolds
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/6/1999 Charles Flowers
The Spectator C 14/8/1999 Robbie Millen
Sunday Telegraph B 4/9/1999 Nicola McAllister
The Times A 17/7/1999 Francis Gilbert
TLS . 9/7/1999 Lucy Dallas
World Lit. Today . Fall/1998 Pamela A. Genova

Please note that the review in World Literature Today refers to the French original, the reviews in The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times Book Review refer to Esther Allen's American translation, and the others refer to Helen Stevenson's British translation. Except the Times Literary Supplement, which addresses both (see quote below). Got that ?

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus. Some take it very seriously and think she's done wonders, other think it is preposterous

  From the Reviews:
  • "This novel may sound mad in my description but Darrieussecq's gift is to describe with perfect clarity the narrator's slide into an insanity of grief." - Penny Heuston, The Age

  • "The more powerful parts of Darrieussecq's unsettling, inconclusive novel are swallowed up by a lack of narrative drive that ultimately leaves its heroine cut adrift. Not that the French seem to care. But then they understand existentialism rather better than us more literal-minded Brits." - The Independent

  • "My Phantom Husband is a more mature book: There are things to chew on, ideas to live with for a while, along with the playfulness, in language and plot, of Pig Tales." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Some readers will dismiss this kind of exercise as claustrophobic and overintellectualized; others will admire a confidently original writer's kaleidoscopic analysis of spiritual crisis. The latter may especially appreciate Darrieussecq's crafty exposition." - Charles Flowers, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Surely simple enough. But all meaning is strangled by her torrent of words. (...) But there is hope -- this novel is short, a mere 153 pages. (...) The second virtue is that it is ludicrously overwritten. It is a perfect complement to the cheese course at a dinner party. To add to the joys of camembert, the Gallic flavour can be enhanced with extracts read in the manner of Peter Sellers." - Robbie Millen, The Spectator

  • "This is a remarkable feat of writing -- an elegiac, sometimes ethereal, sometimes fiercely acute work from a daringly original writer -- but ultimately it does not succeed. Darrieussecq poses more questions than she answers, a trait bordering on self-indulgence. And while the novel frequently soars, it all too often falters on a sporadic narrative drive that inevitably weakens the interior monologue." - Nicola McAllister, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Behind the gripping narrative runs a serious investigation into the nature of reality. (...) Although My Phantom Husband is very short, its descriptions of the wife's descent into an hallucinatory madness make it a more absorbing read than many novels twice the length. (...) It shows better than most fiction that the physical world we inhabit is purely a mental construct." - Francis Gilbert, The Times

  • "With the disappearance of her husband, the narrator, who, like him, remains unnamed, falls down a kind of phenomenological rabbit hole, a perspective from which perception, sensation, and communication are problematized to such a degree that the individual mind seems forever fated to an alienated, isolated existence of shadow, doubt, and illusion." - Pamela A. Genova, World Literature Today

  About the translations:
  • "My Phantom Husband is also brilliantly translated. 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." - Penny Heuston, The Age

  • "It has been marvellously translated from the French by Helen Stevenson and reads much like an extended prose poem; every word and cadence can be savoured." - Francis Gilbert, The Times

  • "There are two translations of Naissance des fantômes into English, one for the United States, one for Britain. Unfortunately, the British version, by the novelist Helen Stevenson, pays little heed to the style of the original, recasting the languorous French in short, staccato phrases and often fudging the sense of difficult passages; Darrieussecq is precise within her looping syntax, and that classical French precision is absolutely necessary for the technique she chooses. (...) The American translation, by Esther Allen for the New Press, reads much more like the French and has caught the novel's peculiar atmosphere." - Lucy Dallas, Times Literary Supplement

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:

Note that this review refers to the American translation by Esther Allen, not the British translation by Helen Stevenson.
       My Phantom Husband is narrated by a woman whose husband went out to buy some bread and never came back. He came home from work, asked if his wife had bought bread, and then went out, supposedly to get some. The narrator recounts the events, and her reaction afterwards in quite painstaking detail. Vividly, one could say. Or: whiningly.
       Eventually the very real husband becomes the phantom husband, and the phantom becomes real enough. Ah, yes, the power of the mind and the imagination .....
       The husband wasn't an exceptional man. A successful real estate agent, the narrator describes him as "a consistent man who would never have let me worry about him alone like that", a man who was "devoid of imagination and in addition extremely kind".
       Why he should have disappeared and what might have become of him remains largely unclear. And Darrieussecq manages to leave the reader fairly indifferent. The reason doesn't seem to matter. But the narrator's love should -- and it, too, doesn't fully grab the reader.
       The husband "has never known how to escape from himself in his sleep", always having the most boring and mundane dreams. Here, however, he seems to have managed the ultimate escape. (Lucky him, one is tempted, occasionally, to sigh.)
       The narrator, understandably, does not take it very well. At first she is numb. Later she worries about the voids that "sprung up in the place he had once filled". She is worried that, with time, the disappearance would be accepted, would become part of the norm, forcing "the straitjacket of habit onto my mind and body".
       Fortunately (?) her mind begins to play tricks with her -- further complicated by the fact that the world she inhabits is a little bit off (i.e. different from ours) anyway. She goes shopping with a "little Yuoangui". She sees things. Phantoms. Including guess who. Which gives her one way to resolve things.

       It's an odd little book, and much of its success depends on how much one can appreciate the narrator and her voice (and her many insecurities). Not all of this seems to come across to best effect in translation (note that we only perused the American translation by Esther Allen, not the highly praised British one by Helen Stevenson). Some of it is probably of dubious effect even in French .....
       My Phantom Husband isn't solid enough in its realism, or in its phantasmagoria, to convince. Books saturated with madness, just like those saturated with alcohol, can be hard to take (we find them quite irritating). But some people seem to enjoy this sort of thing. And it is fairly short.

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My Phantom Husband: 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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