Thursday, April 9, 2009

Book Review - The Notebook by Agota Kristof

Mortifying Honesty

When reading a book, I have this habit/obsession where I have to add any books mentioned in said book to my ‘To-Be-Read’ list. This started as an interesting way to build my list and expand my range, but has turned into a 2,000 book TBR list comprised mostly of books that I have absolutely no interest in reading. In light of the fact that there are thousands of awesome books out there that I would actually like to read, I think I will be stopping this compulsive practice. However, without having adhered to this exercise, I doubt I would ever have stumbled upon this remarkably moving book.

The Notebook made its way on to my list as per it being on the favourites list of Heather O’Neill, as mentioned in the back of her novel Lullabies for Little Criminals. Once I realized that this wasn’t the book that the movie with Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams was based upon, but was actually an epistolary novel written by a Hungarian woman and translated from the French language, I was intrigued and ordered it from the library.

I feel that I should start with a disclaimer when discussing the content of this book, since these are some of the creepiest and most distressing stories that I’ve read to date. So, there, consider yourself forewarned. Within its few pages we are met with barbaric scenes of bestiality, paedophilia, and gang rape, but to name a few of the atrocities. The abysmal misery that shrouds these pathetic characters is as inconceivable as it is indicative of wartime suffering.

The Notebook is the story of young twin brothers who after being abandoned by their mother, to live with their grandmother in a tiny house on the frontlines of battle, must learn to survive under the gravest of circumstances. With a boorish and insatiable old woman that the neighbours call ‘the witch’ as their slave-driving guardian, the boys quickly learn that they must protect each other or be defeated.

Through self-imposed exercises of fasting, self-mutilation and immobilization, this fearless pair conditions themselves to withstand any torture that befalls them. With their newly fashioned armour of apathy, these savages methodically collect food and earn money, while becoming the most feared of all the town folk. They even avenge the honour of their pathetic neighbour, ‘Harelip,’ and her deaf and dumb mother, this all before the loss of their milk teeth.

By the end of this short novel I was thankful for it to be over, as I was completely exhausted by its viciousness, and was in need of a break. It’s ghastly to think of the monstrous behaviour that shell-shock, starvation and hysteria can cause in the desperate.

Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t provide for much closure since this is book one of a trilogy. I dare say that I might have to search for the other two books because of my curiosity being piqued and what I can only refer to as my morbid fascination with train wrecks needing to be assuaged. As for recommending this book, I'd be apprehensive. Only those with a strong stomach and a hardened heart would make it through, and even they would not be unscathed. In conclusion, read at your own risk.

4.5/5 Snakes


  1. Sounds exhausting ideed. I LOVED Lullabies for Little Criminals. I finished it about seven months ago and have been passing it on to all my friends to read since then.

  2. I do the same thing with my TBR list. Especially with non-fiction books, this can get out of control very fast!

    And now you've gone and made me add one more:-) I'm not sure why - it does sound very disturbing, but fascinating too. Thanks for the health warning anyway! If it does me permanent psychological damage, I won't sue.

  3. Kerri...Yes, I really enjoyed Lullabies myself. I have a review for it here:

    Andrew...It has gotten severly out of hand on my end.

    As for The Notebook, it may be sinister and difficult to read, but that doesn't take away from it being engaging and worth the poignant message.

    I look forward to hearing what you think of it.

  4. I have given you an award on my blog

  5. I picked up the whole trilogy in one book from amazon. The book of lies, I think, is what they called it.

    The other two books in the series are not as good but definitely worth reading.

  6. The story ma be depressing at face value,but I find its general presentation laced with humor, that I tend to ignore the fact that rape or a murder has just occured.

  7. Yes the book is very atrocious. The twins are clinically honest to situations. The greatest example is letting their father run over the landmine across the border to trace a safe path for one to go. I think what Agota Kristoff brings forth is the ultimate apathy- war is only about survival and nothing else.

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