Lou Bertignac has an IQ of 160 and a good friend in class rebel Lucas. At home her father puts a brave face on things but cries in secret in the bathroom, while her mother rarely speaks and hardly ever leaves the house. To escape this desolate world, Lou goes often to Gare d’Austerlitz to see the big emotions in the smiles and tears of arrival and departure. But there she also sees the homeless, meets a girl called No, only a few years older than herself, and decides to make homelessness the topic of her class presentation. Bit by bit, Lou and No become friends until, the project over, No disappears. Heartbroken, Lou asks her parents the unaskable question and her parents say: Yes, No can come to live with them. So Lou goes down into the underworld of Paris’s street people to bring her friend up to the light of a home and family life, she thinks. (from Amazon.co.uk)
I loved the sound of this book the minute I heard about it and was really keen to read it. I knew the basic premise and I knew it was set in Paris and had been translated from French, but other than that I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Lou is a strange character, incredibly intelligent but painfully shy, lonely and unsure of herself. Placed two years above her age group at school she has no real friends, being alienated from both girls of a similar age and the older ones in her class. Since the death of her baby sister her mother has been severely depressed and home life has been devoid of any emotion. My heart immediately went out to this lonely little girl, who despite her amazing intelligence is extremely vulnerable and immature. Her visits to the train station to witness ‘emotion’ were so touching it made my heart ache.
No also hooked me straight away. Tough, feisty but with a real vulnerability, she is tragic in her absolute realness. There are No’s the world over who have been handed a rough card and seem to walk from crisis to crisis. Most of the time it’s easy to think it’s their own fault, they could change if they wanted, or to just not think about them at all. No reminded me though just how lucky I am, and that if circumstances had been different, I could easily have been a No. At first it appears No is using Lou, and I was worried about this, but as the story unfolds and their friendship grows it becomes clear that there is a mutual need for each other between Lou and No.
There is very little dialogue in the book. It’s told from Lou’s viewpoint and is simple but brutally honest. Delphine De Vigan paints a vividly real picture of what it is to be homeless. The waiting, queuing, aimlessness and boredom and above all, the invisibility and separation from society are powerfully described. It also isn’t a clichéd fairytale, where the homeless person is rescued and everyone lives happily ever after. In fact, it’s when took in by Lou’s family that many of No’s problems begin and again I got a real sense of what it would be like to be No and how difficult things were for her. Lou does a lot of philosophising and these passages really are thought provoking and touching. Despite being translated, I also felt that the book retained it’s French essence and the streets of Paris where very much brought to life. Mostly the translation is impeccable with none of the emotion lost at all. There was an odd sentence here and there that came across a little odd, but this really was only once or twice within the book and for the main it flowed beautifully.
One tiny thing I found a little odd was that I didn’t really understand the relationship between Lou and Lucas. Lucas is 17, and in contrast to Lou has been dropped two years at school. I could understand her infatuation with him, but found his situation a little unbelievable. While I felt sorry for him, I’m not sure a boy in his position would even be attending school let alone befriending 13 year olds like Lou. I wouldn’t go as far to say this affected my enjoyment of the book at all, just contrasted with the stark reality of the rest of the story. Maybe I’m just a little too cynical though.
No and Me is one of those books that just creep right under your skin and really make you think. It’s full of complex characters and situations, yet is simple and clear in both the writing and the message. It’s touching, heartbreaking, hopeful and bittersweet; it’s one that will stay with me for a long time. I was glued to this book and didn’t want to put it down as I became attached to both Lou and No and wanted to know how things worked out for them. I’d happily recommend this book.
Thanks to the publishers for sending me this book for review.