The Stranger Next Door

The Stranger Next Door was the first of Amelie Nothomb’s novels to be translated into English (by Carol Volk), in 1996 only a year after its original publication, and fourteen years before her first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin in 2010. Nothomb is now regularly translated, though not quite at a pace to keep up with the novel a year she has written since 1992. The story begins when the narrator, Emile, a classics teacher, and his wife (and childhood sweetheart), Juliette, retire to a house in the country:

“When we saw the House we had a wonderful feeling of relief: this place we had been aspiring to since childhood existed after all. If we had dared to imagine it, we would have imagined a clearing just like this one, near a river, with this house – the House – pretty, invisible, a wisteria climbing its walls.”

They have only one neighbour, a doctor, which they find reassuring – “Juliette and I would be retiring from the world but thirty yards from our refuge would a doctor!” – until, that is, he pays them a visit. The neighbour, Bernardin, turn out to be taciturn in the extreme, rarely extending his speech beyond a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’:

“He reminded me of a depressed buddha. At least you couldn’t fault him for being a chatterbox.”

Despite his distinct lack of conversational elan, he stays for two hours. The narrator initially finds him “touching”, believing that he has visited only because “he felt obliged to… by some naïve idea of decorum.” However, the next day, at exactly the same time, he returns for a further two hours of mono-syllabic responses. Emile experiments with sitting silently but this only seems to anger Bernardin. He finds himself helpless to be anything other than well-mannered:

“I didn’t have the courage to be rude.”

The daily afternoon visits leave Emile feeling a “vague anxiety” even as he wakes up, referring to Bernardin as “our torturer”. After a few days they decide the only solution is to be out at four o’clock, but a walk in the woods results in Juliette developing a cold and she takes to her bed the next day and they decide instead to not answer the door. However, this simply results in Bernardin knocking louder and louder, “like a madman”, until Emile is worried he will break the door down.

Eventually, they invite Bernardin to bring his wife, Bernadette, for dinner, whom they discover to be even more outlandish than he, “a mass of flesh wearing a dress. or, rather, that had been wrapped in a piece of fabric.” Though they find her both horrifying and disgusting, they identify with her in the face of Bernardin’s persecution, finding that she “inspired tender sympathy in us.” Afterwards, however, Bernardin’s visits continue:

“I had first thought him inert because he sat for hours doing nothing. But, in fact, he only seemed to be doing nothing: in reality, he was in the process of destroying me”

In this sense, The Stranger Next Door is a slow burn thriller, with Nothomb’s focus not Bernardin but Emile. To what lengths will he go to be rid of his troublesome neighbour? At the beginning he claims he is powerless:

“We are so polite that our politeness has become unconscious. You can’t fight your unconscious.”

However, we are warned in the novel’s opening lines that:

“We know nothing about ourselves. We think we’re used to being ourselves, but it’s just the opposite. The more the years pass the less we understand the person in whose name we say and do things.”

The reader may also find their sympathies waver as the novel progresses. At times, Emile’s attempts to understand Bernardin can seem as invasive as Bernardin’s presence. Bernardin, on the other hand, explicitly rejects understanding. There is also something cloying in Emile and Juliette’s marriage. You may find lines like, “I had eyes only for the little six-year-old girl with whom I had lived for nearly sixty years,” sweet, or you may, like me, suspect that Emile is unable to see Juliette as an individual adult, describing her as “even more fragile than she was petite” and remembering happily when they showered together as ten-year-olds. (There are no memories of their adult life together). How you feel about Emile will colour how you feel about the novel’s eventual conclusion, and the choices that he makes. What is without doubt, however, is Nothomb’s ability to provoke her readers with a lightness of touch which disguises her more darker intentions.

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6 Responses to “The Stranger Next Door”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    What an intriguing sounding book – especially as Emile sounds a little unreliable. And yes – I think I *would* find the marriage portrayed here very cloying….

  2. Julé Cunningham Says:

    Thank you! Here I thought I hadn’t read any Amelie Nothomb but remember this one and agree that’s a bit of a sneaky thriller.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    I like how unsettling this sounds, particularly given the premise and your comments about Emile as a character. I’m definitely getting a strong ‘creepy’ vibe from some of those quotes. Now you have me worried about the outcome here – not just for Bernadin but for Juliette too!

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