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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Sulphuric Acid

Amélie Nothomb

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To purchase Sulphuric Acid

Title: Sulphuric Acid
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 193 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Sulphuric Acid - US
Sulphuric Acid - UK
Sulphuric Acid - Canada
Acide sulfurique - Canada
Sulphuric Acid - India
Acide sulfurique - France
Reality-Show - Deutschland
Acido solforico - Italia
Ácido sulfúrico - España
  • French title: Acide sulfurique
  • Translated by Shaun Whiteside

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Our Assessment:

B : tough premise to work with

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 15/9/2005 .
Financial Times . 18/8/2007 Lottie Moggach
The Independent . 28/8/2007 Marianne Brace
L'Express . 29/8/2005 Marianne Payot
NZZ . 15/5/2007 Thomas Laux
The Observer . 23/3/2008 Emily Stokes
Le Temps . 27/8/2005 Isabelle Rüf
TLS . 16/9/2005 Natasha Lehrer

  From the Reviews:
  • "Amélie Nothomb s'est-elle fourvoyée avec candeur, ou a-t-elle volontairement décidé de choquer? Juste pour le plaisir de voir, tapie sous son chapeau, la polémique enfler, les critiques l'éreinter ?" - Marianne Payot, L'Express

  • "As an allegory of our amoral, celebrity-obsessed culture, the short new novel by this young Belgian author is as subtle as a whack on the head with a mallet. (...) Gleefully defying all bourgeois notions of "good" writing, Nothomb has no truck with description, sub-plot and showing, not telling. Her characters are merely vessels for bald ideas; there is nothing for the reader to elaborate on or unravel." - Lottie Moggach, Financial Times

  • "Nothomb's fable has wry moments. (...) Nothomb displays her usual light touch, but her insights on media hypocrisy, celebrity and voyeurism are rather obvious. The story should be disturbing, but isn't. While Nothomb can be deliciously astute about "outsiders", here, characters and setting feel token." - Marianne Brace, The Independent

  • "Das Hauptproblem des neuen Romans der Belgierin ist ohnehin ein ganz anderes. Er nimmt den Schock, das ganze Lagersystem und die Tötungsmaschinerie letztlich nur als Kulisse, um etwas ganz anderes zu erzählen, und ist deshalb selber zynisch." - Thomas Laux, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(T)his slender novel is elegant and clever -- but it might make you wonder when in the future dystopias are going to become so chic." - Emily Stokes, The Observer

  • "Amélie Nothomb joue sur le fait que la souffrance des autres fait toujours recette, qu'il n'y a pas de limites à l'abjection des humains. Elle a probablement raison. Mais sa fable est trop schématique pour être crédible. Et la rédemption finale de la méchante au grand cœur en affaiblit encore la portée." - Isabelle Rüf, Le Temps

  • "It is an extraordinary -- yet almost ludicrously obvious -- conceit, freighted with philosophical challenges regarding the nature of a voyeuristic society on the verge of moral collapse, and in the opening stages of the novel Nothomb seems likely to pull it off. (...) It soon becomes clear, however, that Nothomb is not sure how far to take this horrific vision. (...) The fuzziness of the details of the camp results from the fact that Nothomb's writing is better suited to fairytale and atmospheric evocation than description, which in this case is necessary to make the novel work." - Natasha Lehrer, 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:

       Acide sulfurique deals with pretty much the ultimate reality TV show: people are grabbed off the street and find themselves taking part -- whether they want to or not -- in Concentration. As in 'concentration camp'. Shipped off in cattle cars, they find themselves in what in every respect except the countless cameras following their every move amounts to a Nazi concentration camp. Right down to what happens to those who are weeded out (the game's 'losers').
       Others play the roles of the guards, the kapos, and it apparently makes for popular TV -- but Nothomb doesn't work too hard to make this a satire of the reality-TV craze, or the way people have become television-obsessed (though eventually the book does turn into a grand indictment of all of this). Instead, it begins (and continues) in typical Nothomb fashion, as a story of personal obsession, one female figure fascinated by another (who doesn't reciprocate those feelings). And, no surprise, it's the one in the weaker position that turns out to be the stronger, etc. etc.
       The women in question are contestant CKZ 114 (real name: Pannonique) and the kapo-playing Zdena. Yes, Nothomb has a thing about and with names -- and she leaves no doubt about it here: the first game the two play consists of Zdena trying to get CKZ 114 to reveal her real name. Because: "le prénom est la clé de la personne" ('the given name is the key to the person' -- which, given the peculiar names Nothomb saddles the characters in all her fiction with is something worth keeping in mind).
       So it is a story of obsession and the dynamics of relationships, especially when they are based on unequal power. Part of the fascination for Zdena is that while CKZ 114 plays the role of the subjugated perfectly well, Zdena can not become the complete puppet-master. In fact, they both manipulate each other, Zdena's power-plays more obvious, CKZ 114's much more subtle.
       CKZ 114 is a typical Nothomb-heroine, a selfless (relatively) innocent with delusions of grandeur. She has a go at playing God, but then settles for the Christ-role (and, yes, there's a red-wine miracle too ...).
       The fact that it's a TV show does play a more significant role in the second half of the novel, as CKZ 114 turns to the cameras and accuses the audience: it is the viewers, rather than the producers or even the country's politicians (that haven't shut the show down) that are responsible for this abomination. Naturally, the viewers lap this up, and the ratings go even higher -- even as she challenges them to shut this crap off.
       When the ratings level off after six months, the producers look for another way to get the audience involved -- and the answer they find is interactivity: let the audience vote off (really, really off) the participants, rather than having the kapos choose the victims. When CKZ 114 tries to undermine this as well, again issuing a challenge to the audience, things really come to a head -- and no less than everyone in the whole country is glued to their TV sets.
       Disappointingly, cynicism doesn't win out; there's an almost happy end. Humanity has been saved from itself -- but that, like most of the novel, isn't entirely convincing.
       The almost sketchy and rushed treatment of the subject matter -- the whole story is told very quickly -- mean there aren't many specifics and not much depth. That treatment works in some of Nothomb's novels, but she's just shooting for way too much here -- and is basing it all on a premise that can't be treated so lightly -- for her to be able to get away with it as is. Indeed, she seems to have been undecided whether to make it a media/cultural critique or a relationship story, and while there are decent elements of both the resulting mishmash makes for a novel that must ultimately be judged to be inadequate.
       Worth a look -- and so short that it's quickly done with -- but not up to her usual standards.

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Sulphuric Acid: Reviews: Amelie Nothomb: Other books by Amélie Nothomb under review: Books about Amélie Nothomb under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Belgian author Amélie Nothomb was born in Kobe, Japan, 13 August 1967.

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