Joy Sorman: Skin Deep

Ninon Moise, 17, is the youngest descendent of a line of women struck by strange diseases. After contracting an illness that makes her skin hypersensitive, she begins a long journey towards healing. Prefaced by American writer Catherine Lacey, Life Sciences is Joy Sorman’s first novel to be translated into English: It recently won the French-American Foundation USA's Translation Prize in the fiction category.
© Joël Saget/AFP

Some families pass down legends and heroic acts. But in the Moise family, illness is the cement that has held together generations of women since the 16th century, exclusively affecting the oldest daughters. Throughout her childhood, Ninon would fall asleep listening to her mother, Esther, tell stories of trances, fits, and women suffering from rare and frightening conditions.

The first was Marie Lacaze, an embroiderer in Strasbourg, afflicted by the dancing plague. She was followed by Brune Clamart, whose vertebrae slowly crumbled, twins Eve and Adèle, struck by Tourette Syndrome, and Louise Tempe, Ninon’s deafblind grandmother, who invented an alphabet communicated by gently pressing her fingers onto the skin. After contracting a disease that stopped her from seeing colors, Esther Moise raised her daughter with the idea that she too would fall prey to this matrilineal curse, much like others are touched by grace. One morning, the 17-year-old high school student wakes up with terrible burns on her arms and the feeling that flames are devouring her skin.

Joy Sorman, a Paris-based novelist and author of documentary works, bases her writings on extensive research. Her precise style draws on even the most specific medical terminology to realistically reflect sensations and the slightest shiver in the body. Shifting from the main storyline to passages in italics recounting the history of Ninon’s ancestors, she follows a young woman’s life through a forest of signs and words, between science and belief. When the illness is named, allodynia, a skin hypersensitivity caused by a neurological dysfunction, the protagonist must learn to live with the pain as a capricious companion of her days and nights.

Finding no answers in the medical world, Ninon numbs herself with cannabis and alcohol, seeking comfort from magicians and shamans until she finally glimpses the path toward healing and emancipation. Throwing off the chains of a painful heritage and supposed genetic destiny, she reclaims her freedom by transforming her skin into a blank canvas, an untouched landscape waiting to welcome a world of possibilities.


Life Sciences by Joy Sorman, translated from French by Lara Vergnaud, Restless Books, October 12, 2021. 272 pages, 18 dollars.

Article published in the October 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.