The Writing Practice: Journalism by Marcus Niski

Don Watson Robert Dessaix Stephen Sewell Anna Funder Liz Jensen


Liz Jensen: The Ninth Life of Louis Drax

Liz Jensen is a UK-based writer whose talent and versatility has seen her author four highly successful novels - Egg Dancing (1995), Ark Baby (1998), The Paper Eater (2000) and War Crimes For The Home (2002). Now with the publication of her fifth novel, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, Liz Jensen has further consolidated her international reputation as a writer or originality, substance and risk-taking. This interview was written for Arts and Medicine, a Sydney based arts magazine published by iMedia Australia.

    When a major writer like Fay Weldon describes your work as 'moved by high intelligence, sharp, funky, funny [and] prophetic' you would tend to agree that it's not a bad rap coming from one novelist to another.

Now with the publication of her fifth novel, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, UK-based author Liz Jensen has further consolidated her international reputation as a writer or originality, substance and risk-taking in a world where readers are hungry for new adventure and quick to damn books that fail to assuage their eager imaginations.

Following in the wake of four already highly successful books - Egg Dancing (1995), Ark Baby (1998), The Paper Eater (2000) and War Crimes For The Home (2002) - The Ninth Life of Louis Drax matches, if not surpasses, Jensen's early exudation of already extraordinary creative juices.

Nine-year-old Louis Drax is a boy with a troubled mind. Dubbed Wacko Boy by the taunting bullies at school, Louis is both precocious and wilful. He's a highly intelligent child; yet at the same time, seemingly pathologically accident-prone. Louis is the dark child whose secrets begin to unravel as we enter his unnerving world.

When young Louis falls off a cliff into a ravine, his 'accident' seems almost preordained in a child who appears to beckon trouble at every turn.   Miraculously surviving the fall, Louis' mother Natalie is shattered. Initially pronounced dead on arrival at the Vichy Accident and Emergency unit, Louis dramatically returns to life and is transferred - "hovering between four and five on the Glasgow Coma Scale" - to the Provence clinic of Dr Pascal Dannachet who sets about coaxing the brain damaged Louis back to consciousness.

But when Louis' case begins to defy conventional medical logic, Dannachet is inexorably drawn into Louis world; a world charged with dark supernatural forces that belie Louis' seemingly intractable comatose state.

Yet, while the adults around Louis are driven to the point of emotional breakdown, life in a coma for Louis is a "richly smelly and boyish" experience filled with dark thoughts and mischievous intentions. "If you wanted to hide, this would be a good place for it" he wryly quips, even musing that hospitals' not such a bad place for an accident-prone boy, "You shouldn't think 'oh poor Louis Drax.' Because it doesn't suck too badly. True story. I don't mind it here."

Indeed from Louis' distorted perspective, there later appears to be a certain dark sense of liberation within his plight. Not only is he in ninth year, but his 'Ninth Life,' a life inhabited by an apparition (macabre imaginary friend?) named Gustave who appears and disappears at various menacing junctures in the story.

While Dannachet optimistically searches for the answers that might point to Louis' recovery, his own life teeters on the brink of emotional and professional disaster as he becomes emotionally in involved with Louis mother. To further heighten the already brimming psychological tension, we are informed that Louis' father, Pierre, now on the run, is suspected of having pushed Louis into the ravine, as Detective Stephanie Charvillefort begins to investigate the case.

Jensen's Ninth Life of Louis Drax undoubtedly renders some innovative storytelling hallmarked by a disturbing veneer of tension that never really leaves us. The voice of Louis Drax, the Accident Prone boy, is both haunting and mischievous at the same time.

While Jensen darkly charts some of the healing/harming dichotomies that to some greater and lesser extent are present in all families, there is a more sinister allusion in this book - albeit, of course, carefully concealed and never explicitly stated - to Munchausen syndrome by proxy and a families' 'struggles' with an accident-prone child. Hence, we are always unnervingly unseated in the initial stages of the novel with the 'did-he-fall-was-he-pushed' aspect of the storytelling. As Jensen explains, " I was interested in writing about a child: a child who doesn't yet have the language or the distance to size up exactly what his parents are doing to him, or why: all he knows is that his family life is dangerous, and he needs to escape from it. His story was a by-product of the voice I developed for him: for me, the voice is always the starting point. When I began writing Louis' voice I knew I wanted to do a Disturbed Child - but it took me a long time to work out how and why he was so angry."

The Ninth Life is certainly not a flawless novel, but few ever are. While the characters are sketched on the canvas with a broad brush, and welded together with what one reviewer has referred to as a kind of "New Gothic glue," Jensen's narrative style is interesting and engaging. Far from shying away from the New Gothic tag, Jensen embraces it as an accurate description of what she was setting out to do in the Ninth Life , " quite early on, when I was working on Louis Drax, I realised I was writing a psychological drama that incorporated a lot of gothic elements," she suggests.

Despite the seemly limitless adventurousness of Liz Jensen's fiction an interesting psychological twist to the background and genesis of The Ninth Life can be found in Jensen's own family history.

A long nursed "family timebomb" within Jensen's own family involves the mysterious incident surrounding Jensen's grandmother, Gertrude, whose body was later found at the bottom of a ravine.   In 1937, when Jensen's own mother was 11, the family had taken a holiday near Lake Lucerne in Switzerland where an argument erupted between Gertrude and her oldest son, 19-year-old Cambridge undergraduate, Leslie. Leslie had stormed off into the mountains, and when hours had passed, a distraught Gertrude set out in search of him. While Gertrude's body was later found, Leslie was never seen again. Needless to say, the events that took place on that holiday haunted Jensen's mother and the remaining children. The 'did she slip and fall or did she jump' mystery became an enduing family legacy surrounding Gertrude's death. As Liz Jensen explains, " our subconscious' are always more intelligent than we are. I didn't realise, when I began writing about Louis' fall, that it came from the story I'd first heard in my childhood, about my grandmother's death. I never consciously set out to write about it, but when it finally struck me that I had used elements of my mother's childhood trauma   - a family going into the mountains, and two members mysteriously disappearing - one ending up apparently dead, the other permanently lost - I wasn't surprised. Perhaps what's amazing is that I didn't use it earlier."

No doubt Jensen's own story is one of a number of interesting creative twists and turns. Born in Oxfordshire in 1959 to parents of mixed ethnic backgrounds - her mother a Moroccan immigrant from a family of Sephardic Jews, her father a Danish violin maker - Jensen was educated at Oxford where she won a scholarship to Somerville College and studied English before working as a journalist for two years in the Far East. She then joined the BBC, first as a journalist, then later as a TV and radio producer. Moving later to France to pursue work as a sculptor, Jensen began work on her first novel, Egg Dancing , in 1989 which was published in 1995.    

The success of Jensen's Ninth Life has ultimately lead not only to strong sales, but also to intense competition for film rights. Whilst Jensen remained initially sceptical about the books' potential for adaptation to film, a Herculean struggle erupted over the rights between Warner Brothers and Miramax, with Miramax prevailing in the end.   Anthony Minghella - Cold Mountain, The English Patient. The Talented Mr Ripley   - will direct the film describing the novel in Miramax's media statement on the film rights deal as "a remarkable suspense novel: tart, mysterious and wrenching."

But success for a novelist is also measured in the time it buys to undertake new projects with the freedom of being unburdened from constant nagging financial anxieties that the absence of success brings. As Jensen explains, "A writer's life is a very insecure one, financially. I'm pleased that's over with. I am glad to have the recognition, too: I love it that readers are getting into what I do, and spreading the word. I'm very grateful for that."

Whether it be in the characters of Gloria Taylor the feisty 'old bird' in War Crimes for The Home , Harvey Kidd a 'forty-four, balding, ink stained and alone' former computer wiz at the centre of Jensen's 'consumer satire' in The Paper Eater, or the Disturbed Child in Louis Drax , we look forward to further creative outpourings in Jensen's ever expansive oeuvre. No doubt her current work in progress, "a very silly story about two time-traveling cleaning ladies in 1890's Denmark," is sure to come complete with Jensen's characteristic wit, insight and invigorating approach to the 'new century' novel.

Liz Jensen will be appearing at the Perth Festival's Writers' Week, 17-23 Feb 2005 at the Perth Concert Hall. Visit or contact the Perth Festival on 08 6488 2000 for full details.

Interview and story by Marcus Niski, Copyright 2005




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