Reading Fanie Demeule’s airtight debut can feel a bit like watching a body-horror installation in a dark, windowless room. The narrator is struggling with an eating disorder that steadily consumes her; she’s also practically the only character in the book. But that’s not to say that it’s an entirely unpleasant experience. Lightness is a spare, stylized, and beautiful exploration of a young woman’s life-threatening obsession.
The novel was first published in 2016 under another haunting title, Déterrer les os (Unearth the bones). For a debut, it’s a bold undertaking, one that shocks with form as well as content. Across its scant eighty-plus pages, paragraphs appear in small, bite-sized chunks — a teasing invitation to devour the text quickly. A relentless rhythm of clipped sentences drives an increasingly insular narrative. Demeule’s protagonist remains distant throughout, so much so that we never learn her name. She tells her story with clinical detachment and with little hint of self-awareness, only a transfixing descent into self-loathing. “I find myself fatter than ever,” she says. “I’m a fake at being skinny, another fucking wannabe. There’s nothing convincing about me. I’m just a fucking joke.”
It is a lonely tale, too. Secondary characters are notably absent and have only the faintest of contours. “My sister is making herself toast,” the narrator tells us, but little more. Even within the work of novelists who explore the dark and painful, sometimes darkly funny subject of women’s alienation — think Ottessa Moshfegh, Rachel Cusk, or Anakana Schofield — this degree of solipsism is unusual. Lightness, in Anita Anand’s near-seamless translation, closes in on the reader, page after page.
The book opens abruptly with the narrator’s birth. Premature, she weighs only four pounds but doesn’t remain “a runt” for long, suckling incessantly until her mother switches her to a bottle. This is the beginning of her insatiable hunger. Later, on a family holiday, she gets her first taste of sexual pleasure atop a wooden pony on a carousel and turns into a “little addict,” asking to go on the ride over and over again. (“My face is hot, insane with pain and pleasure.”) When she discovers grapefruit, she eats it with what can only be described as carnal relish. “From somewhere deep and guttural,” she demands another.
Everything changes with the arrival of her period. The narrator wakes up in her “soiled” bed, and upon learning “the business about babies,” declares that she wants out of the whole thing. Shame sets in, as well as a visceral dislike for the body’s excesses. “All day I weep in anger and helplessness,” she says, against her “cunning, vicious body,” which she loathes and dreads: “This humiliating stranger. This diving bell in which I’m trapped, buried alive.” Confused and overwhelmed, she makes it her goal to stop her period, which she hears can happen to athletes and gymnasts. Their lean and slender forms become, to her, disencumbered and perfect.
In pursuit of that titular lightness, the narrator attempts to sublimate her appetites, and a program of rigorous exercise and starvation ensues. She allows herself only frugal meals: one Quaker granola bar, a green salad, a clementine, a ladle of soup. She takes up the cello — a superbly suggestive instrument — and practises for hours every night, hoping to dislodge all traces of inaccuracy and excess. She exercises with admirable if frightening discipline, comparing her laps of the family’s swimming pool to that first, ecstatic experience on the carousel. One excess is traded for another. She thinks she could go on this ride forever.
Eventually, her obsession mutates into something dangerous and all-consuming, a ritualistic devotion to bones and purity that Demeule renders in chilling, succinct prose. The narrator adopts an “excellent bone maintenance regimen” to care for her wasted frame: “I meticulously wash it, eliminate its impurities, sharpen its contours and its clean, minimal lines.” She insists that her bones are “purity in linear form,” and then, in an act of further purification, gives away all her possessions and paints her room white. As readers, we watch helplessly as she sinks deeper into delusion.
Lightness can be a bleak text, but Demeule’s narrator is a compelling anti-heroine. Melancholy, obsessive, and darkly funny, she presides over the text like some demented priestess — grandiose in her sense of self, consumed by her ritual devotion, and mercilessly cynical about pretty much everything else. She goes on dates with men she has no interest in, seemingly only to mock them: “He parks like a cowboy. Then he comes around to open my door, presumably to score a few fuck points.” On nights out, she refuses to pay, then yells at her friends with characteristic high-mindedness: “Let me live a life with no money, no alcohol, no food and no sex. I don’t want to be like you.” (In response, her friends lift her by the armpits and throw her into a taxi.) For her first college trip abroad, she chooses Ireland, “kingdom of hunger and strength,” and, without a hint of irony, states that her famine gives her a unique connection to the land. In the next paragraph, like a seer divining omens, she sits alone on a cliff staring into the eyes of an injured goat until it finally dies. When she returns from Ireland, she is thinner than ever.
Probing the interplay between sex and agency, life and death, is another form of the novel’s obsessiveness. Magnolias explode into blossom as the narrator reads Marguerite Duras; ghosts and corpses appear and reappear throughout the text; purification becomes a recurring concern; and her cello is brought out occasionally, each time representing a turn in her relationship with her sexuality. But Demeule doesn’t seem interested in exploring the questions she raises; neither does she dwell on pathos or offer a redemptive narrative arc. Despite pointing to the body constantly, she actually says very little about it, or about the way it’s culturally coded and disciplined. The narrator’s self-loathing is an internal exploration.
The book, then, is more an aesthetic project than a moral one. Demeule’s delicate and richly allusive prose evokes both the beauty and the terror of her protagonist’s predicament, and it traps us, and her character, somewhere in between. Well into her eating disorder and rail thin, the narrator goes snowshoeing and marvels at how she hovers over the snow. The grandiosity of her self-description frequently contrasts with the reality of her declining health. She’s strong, she tells us, like the sun, like the deer she sees on her walk. She then conjures an image of freedom so thrilling and ethereal that we give in to the beauty of it without question. “My silhouette glides over valleys and hills, squeezes between the branches and rocks. . . . Antlers grow through my tuque, and I can feel a coat of fur bristling on my back. My eyes pierce the polar night.”
It is the imagery that makes Lightness such an enthralling read, even if the surrender to it can feel uncomfortable and claustrophobic at times. The narrator describes it best when she’s on her way to the hospital, midway through the novel. “It would be almost pleasant if I weren’t so scared.”