The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen

Louis Drax has always been accident-prone, ever since he nearly ‘got Cot Death’ as a baby. He’s also Disturbed, so he tells us, and apparently not helped by his weekly visits to his hated psychiatrist Fat Perez. Louis’ interests are wildlife, Lego, poisons, rapists and his hamsters, all of which are called Mohammed and all of which he kills, believing there to be a special Right of Disposal which allows owners to take their pets’ lives if they exceed their expected lifespan. Now, nine-year-old Louis is in a coma after a horrific accident, and his father has disappeared. With only a sinister, bandaged man called Gustave living in his head to keep him company, Louis co-narrates the novel with his doctor, Pascal Dannachet, a man on the brink of falling desperately in love with his mother.

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is a tense, taut little novel – I read it almost in a single sitting. Every character in the novel is deeply, infuriatingly flawed, frequently to the point of being unlikeable – and yet Jensen’s writing is so masterful in its manipulation of the reader’s perceptions that we still care about them. Precocious, sly and vindictive, Louis is a chilling creation, but things, and people, are not quite as simple as they appear. Least of all Louis himself, in fact, who, even when locked into a deep coma, is still the driving force behind the story. Louis might seem confused about certain things – after all, he’s barely nine years old, and the mysterious behaviour of whispering adults and their semi-concealed secrets is surely hard for a little boy to comprehend – but maybe, just maybe, he understands more than we think. If only he could find a way to communicate...

Apart from Louis as a narrator, what really succeeds is the manner in which the Drax family's secrets are gradually exposed. Jensen could so easily have gone for the big 'twist' reveal every time, but instead, the narrative scratches steadily and persistently away at the truth like an archaeologist painstakingly uncovering a long-buried Bronze Age skeleton. It’s an effective approach that builds the tension slowly and makes this deeply unsettling book hard to put down.