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The Diving Bell and The Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the ButterflyThe Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Picture this: You wake up one morning to find yourself “locked in”; trapped inside a body that no longer has the capacity to move, feel, even breathe, of its own volition. The only functioning facility you still possess is your brain, meaning (all the more horrifically) that you know precisely what is happening as your new reality slowly unfolds around you. You are a man in the prime of his life with a wife (albeit ex) and two children. A creative intellectual who once held the esteemed position of Editor of Elle magazine. But in an instant that is all gone. You are a “vegetable” lacking the ability to so much as “ruffle the bristly hair” of your eldest child, or to “clasp his downy neck”. A condition so “monstrous, iniquitous, revolting, horrible” to be hell itself, perfectly realised.

Now imagine that you can communicate beyond the void that is your locked-in existence. What would you say, if time and words were limited? To whom would you speak? What stories would you privilege over others?

This is the basis of Bauby’s memoir, a book which holds so MUCH promise, yet sadly fails to deliver. Excuse me while I duck for cover but I bravely venture that all of you with deep pockets who doled out 4 and 5 stars were taken in more by your admiration for the story than the actual skill in telling it. Sure, praise for writing this book from the other side of locked-in syndrome is well-deserved; on that point there is no argument. What’s not to admire about dictating a book – not word by word, sentence by sentence, but LETTER by LETTER, using the blinks of one’s eye as your only vehicle of communication? That’s right, someone held up the alphabet for Mr Bauby and he blinked to either affirm or reject a given letter. In this way, his story took shape over a period of two months, after which, even more tragically, he died.

“Wow! They should make that story into a movie” I hear you say. They did, and it won accolades, no doubt deservedly so (I’m deliberately posting this review before watching it so as to be sure my review of the book is not tainted by the audio/visual advantages of film). But something went wrong in the telling of this story in the written format, for me at least. It meanders (or as the title suggests flits like a butterfly) off on tangents which you cannot help but find yourself wondering: “he blinked like a bastard just to say THAT?”. A reviewer might not have the right to judge the memoir in terms of what story a writer chooses to tell, but unfortunately with this book you just can’t help it. Considering how difficult each word was to write, I mean. You get an picture for how tough his task is because Bauby so vividly describes the numerous challenges of his very existence (from the pain of over-sensitive hearing to the undignified procedures involved in his weekly bath). Of course you’re going to wonder what motivated his selection of events and stories – it’s not as though it was a walk in the park was it? In fact, as a reader I actually felt like I had an obligation to be diligent in searching for the greater significance of each and every word in this book. But honestly? I came away feeling sorry for his children, for his ex-wife, for his parents and significant friends – because I didn’t find a message from beyond at all. It was just a butterfly, and occasionally the diving bell, and all of it not particularly well written.

Ouch! I’m mean!!

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