Louis Drax is a nine-year-old boy living in France with his stay at home mother and Air France pilot father. Such an apparently normal family description is the merest tissue of appearances. The father is probably an alcoholic and unfaithful; the son is "accident-prone" (a nearly fatal episode of SIDS at two weeks of age, a near fatal electrocution at age 6 after falling on the tracks of the métro in Lyon; salmonella, tetanus, botulism, meningitis, etc. [or, as Louis is fond of saying, "blah, blah, blah."]) and the mother has issues that only emerge as one becomes more deeply involved in what is a mystery story.

Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Chronicle of a Death Foretold, or Janet Lewis’s superb The Trial of Søren Qvist, one knows the ending early on (page 16 in Louis Drax), but not the details. The why and the how are the stuff of the novelist’s art in all three books.

With premonition of more danger, Louis goes on a family picnic (see below for the author’s biographical basis for this tale) and winds up at the bottom of a ravine, dead. Drowned and dead. A few hours later, in the morgue, he is found to be alive. Comatose and in a persistent vegetative state but alive. He is therefore transferred to the care of a neurologist specializing in comatose patients at the Clinique de l’Horizon (formerly l’Hôpital des Incurables).

It is here that the mystery unfolds. The questions are: How did Louis end up at the bottom of the ravine? Did his father, now missing, push him as his distraught mother alleges? What role does the clearly neurotic mother play in this tragedy? And who exactly is Louis Drax? Lastly, how do the mysterious letters allegedly from him, written while still in a coma, come to be?


"The inspiration for Louis Drax came from my own grandmother’s death in Switzerland in the 1930s. Her body was found at the bottom of a cliff, three days after her eldest son had vanished from the face of the earth. The mystery of how my grandmother died, and what happened to her lost son, was never solved. It cast a shadow across the whole family, and when I first heard it as a child, it haunted me.

But I didn’t want to write that story. Instead, I wanted to explore the emotions it evoked. I wanted to write something from the point of view of a young boy because I love the way my own boys talk, and I wanted to capture that playground idiolect. I don’t think that when I started writing the novel, it was going to turn out so dark. But it ended up as a ghost story. If it has an unsettling effect on people, I’m glad. It’s meant to. It was sometimes harrowing to write, because it took me to places I didn’t really want to go. But that’s part of what writing is about. It’s the risk and it’s the adventure. And reading is the same." (reference 1)

With this as background (I did not know this until after I had read the book and, indeed, this material is not contained in the book), the reader of Louis Drax is in for a polyphonically narrated tour through the Hieronymous Bosch landscape of Louis’s disturbed mind. We gain access to it via his first person narrated chapters that also include dialogues with his therapist, Fat Perez. The other narrator is the neurologist, Dr. Pascal Dannachet, who achieves a certain success with Louis, but at great personal and professional cost.

For a book of only 226 pages, this novel is a rich dissection of surfaces versus depths (both literal and topological, as in ravines, and cognitive); vision versus blindness (physical, cognitive and moral); maps of the body and mind (including phrenological maps); physician-patient relationships (there are two neurologists and a therapist who fall prey to the Drax family tragedy and its aftershocks); the care of the comatose patient; wrongful life; rape as immaculate conception and the lore of caesarean section; euthanasia or what Louis calls The Right of Disposal (with reference to his pet hamsters, recalling Gloucester’s remark in King Lear, Act IV, Scene I, "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport" (Lines 38-39)); nonverbal communication; and the role of manipulation in therapy.

This novel is dark, very dark, with much psychic violence and narrated in part from the point of view of a victim/mentally aberrant young person, recalling The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (see annotations). It is pure Liz Jensen in its inventiveness and irreverence for medical conventions as received dogma. Like Darwinism in Jensen’s playful and brilliantly original novel, Ark Baby, many medical "truths" receive a skeptical examination. One will never view a comatose patient in the same way after reading Louis Drax.

Reference 1: Accessed May 11, 2005


First published in the UK in June 2004 (Bloomsbury)



Place Published

New York



Page Count