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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Barbe bleue

Amélie Nothomb

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To purchase Barbe bleue

Title: Barbe bleue
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012
Length: 125 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Barbe bleue - Canada
Barbe bleue - France
Blaubart - Deutschland
Barbablù - Italia
Barba Azul - España
  • Barbe bleue has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B+ : contemporary spin on the Bluebeard-tale; typically Nothombian

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
El País . 8/2/2014 J. Aparicio Maydeu
World Lit. Today . 1-2/2013 Erik Martiny

  From the Reviews:
  • "Su Barba Azul es una novela breve -- un divertimento más para su colección, dirán algunos añadiendo "mero" antes de "divertimento" --, pero realmente importante en su imparable trayectoria. Tal vez estemos ante una obra sintética precisamente porque es una obra de auténtica madurez, como si Nothomb fuera el pianista virtuoso que ya toca a la perfección y se permite licencias cómplices con su modo de interpretar sabiéndose de memoria la partitura porque la ha imaginado antes de salir al escenario en blanco de la página Word de su ordenador." - Javier Aparicio Maydeu, El País

  • "Amélie Nothomb’s version is also a fine and dazzlingly exciting contribution to the legend. This short and fast-paced novel casts the protagonists in a contemporary Parisian setting. (...) As always, Nothomb’s learning is ostentatious yet winsome and edifying at the same time; her dialogue is quaintly old-fashioned in an irresistibly flamboyant way that suits her often monstrously aristocratic characters." - Erik Martiny, 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:

       Barbe bleue is Amélie Nothomb's modern spin on the Bluebeard tale. Set in contemporary Paris, it begins with Saturnine -- and fifteen other applicants -- having answered an advert looking for a flatmate. Except the 'flat' is a grand residence in Paris' exclusive seventh arrondissement, and the rent for the 40m² room with bath a too-good-to-believe €500 a month -- far, far below market rates for something that size, even in far less desirable locations. Of course, there is a catch: eight women have preceded the current applicants as previous renters -- and each in turn has mysteriously disappeared.
       The owner -- and Bluebeard-figure -- is don Elemirio Nibal y Milcar; his reputation precedes him -- but isn't enough to scare off these women looking for affordable housing. A Spanish aristocrat, he is forty-four years old, and hasn't set foot outside his grand residence in twenty years. He considers the candidates for the room, but has no doubts: it's meant for Saturnine Puissant, a twenty-five year-old substitute teacher from Belgium. (The name may have something to do with it: a typical Nothombian detail has all her predecessors bearing names that end in '-ine' as well -- leading Saturnine at one point to suggest that the logical conclusion is that the one to follow her will be named 'Margarine'.) It's a dream set-up (and it gets better, with those meals Don Elemirio invites Saturnine to share and then, when she's won him over to the pleasures of champagne, even a refrigerator stocked with nothing else ...) -- with only one condition: there's a 'chambre noir' (a (photographic) darkroom) that she is prohibited from entering -- and if she ever does, there will be consequences (cue the ominous music ...).
       In plucky Saturnine and creepy Don Elemirio Nothomb pits two familiar types against each other, too; variations on this sort of duel -- with a great deal of verbal jousting -- are familiar from several of her earlier novels. Of course, the stakes are higher here -- if what's rumored about Don Elemirio is true. And, hey, eight women are missing, so clearly something is up here. Of course, part of the fun is in the slow revelation of what exactly their fate was.
       Don Elemirio is the typical Nothombian recluse, unwilling to have anything to do with the technology of the digital age and explaining why he doesn't venture out any longer by dismissively claiming: "Le monde extérieur me choque par sa vulgarité et son ennui" ('The outside world offends my sensibilities with its vulgarity and boredom'). Of course, it doesn't take long before he's proclaiming his love for Saturnine. For her part, she is certainly seduced by her very comfortable new lifestyle, and she enjoys her banter with Don Elemirio, and their twisted dance of mutual teasing -- he about the secrets from his past; she about how interested she is in them, and him -- makes for an entertaining back and forth. Even Saturnine has to admit that, in some ways (hey, he even cooks ! he sews ! (couture, no less !)) he's quite the catch: "vous seriez l'homme idéal, n'était votre ... vice" ('you'd be the ideal man, if it wasn't for your ... vice').
       In their conversations, Nothomb moves easily between philosophical questions of love and art -- and how both or either may be made permanent --, discussions of the finer pleasures of life (they eat and drink very well) as well as the darker sides to this story (mortality, on several levels; exerting control over others), and quite a bit of humor (Don Elemirio's account of his parents' ... explosive death is sublimely ridiculous).
       Eventually, Saturnine learns of the fate of her predecessors, and the darkroom's secrets (for someone with a darkroom, Don Elemirio does not seem to be a particularly avid photographer; but he does have that nice Hasselblad ...). Who will turn the tables on whom ? Who will succumb ? Nothomb teases the reader, just as she has her characters tease each other, and she does it well.
       An enjoyable variation on the Bluebeard story, and a Nothomb novel through and through (i.e. delivering exactly what the fans want and expect).

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 June 2015

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Barbe bleue: Reviews: Amélie 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, August 13, 1967.

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