The Book of Proper Names is set in contemporary Paris, its main character an orphan named Plectrude. Before the child's birth her nineteen-year-old mother shoots and kills her nineteen-year-old (and somewhat feckless) father because she hates the names he's devised for their child--she fears they will doom their unborn child to mediocrity. The mother confesses openly to what she has done, and why. She is arrested and thrown into prison, where she gives birth to the child, names her, to everyone's bafflement, Plectrude--an obscure saint, and an albatross of a name--and then hangs herself.
The novel therefore begins on the borderline between tragedy and absurdity, but as Plectrude grows--raised by a loving, indulgent, and eccentric aunt--it becomes a deeply moving and simultaneously chilling portrait of girlhood. Plectrude's great gift turns out to be for ballet, and she throws herself into dance as if her life depended upon it. Few novels have shown us the implacable and unforgiving world of ballet with more intuitive sympathy, yet also with a keen-eyed assessment of the true price of artistic perfection.. Inevitably, the doom hovering over Plectrude's life from birth returns to haunt her, and in the end she learns to survive in the only way she knows how--by committing an act of deadly self-preservation her mother would have perhaps understood best.
The Book of Proper Names is vintage Amelie Nothomb--alternatively mordant and poignant, a portrait of adolescence that is fierce and funny at the same time. There is nothing mediocre either about Nothomb nor her creations.