In the chamber of corpses, a room in the house reserved for their father’s hunting trophies, the hyena’s yellow eyes fascinate and terrify the children. Disobeying the rules, the narrator and her younger brother Gilles like to venture into Blue Beard’s lair to stroke the elephant tusks, stare at the zebra heads, and marvel at the lion devouring a gazelle. Their father is a predator obsessed with blood, and reigns over the family like a tyrant. When he goes too long without killing an animal, his rage erupts like a river bursting its banks. This anger washes over his wife, whom he beats for as little as overcooking meat. Paralyzed by fear, the woman whose passiveness sees her nicknamed “the amoeba” by her children finds some solace in her parrot and the goats she raises in her garden. In an effort to escape her father’s madness, the narrator buries herself in her science studies and develops a passion for Marie Curie. But when the local ice-cream maker dies in a foolish (and spectacular) accident, traumatizing Gilles, the young girl decides to make him smile again by trying to build a time machine.
“From that moment on,” writes Adeline Dieudonné, “I saw my life as a flawed offshoot of reality, a draft version intended to be rewritten. It made everything seem more bearable.” In its acerbic, unsentimental account of an abusive childhood in a Belgian suburb, Real Life reveals an author with a singular perspective of the world, blending humor, affection, and darkness. The secondary characters are particularly well-constructed, including the eccentric neighbor, the physics teacher, his mute wife who hides her face, and the young father who awakens the girl’s sensuality. Certain scenes, such as the night-time hunt in the woods, could have been taken from a thriller movie. Transforming the traditional coming-of-age novel, Adeline Dieudonné’s successful first work is a captivating, unnerving take on emancipation and the hope of escaping violence.