Book review: ‘Charlotte’, by David Foenkinos

I’d never heard of Charlotte Salomon, the German artist whose tragic life and death is the story of this award-winning novel by French writer David Foenkinos. I bought it somewhat impulsively at a supermarket in Brussels one day as I queued for the checkout. Having tried and failed with a number of French classics, as well as some modern novels, I decided I needed something simple yet interesting. Charlotte is both.

The first thing that strikes you is the bullet-point style of the prose. Take the opening as an example:

Charlotte learned to read her name on a gravestone.


So she wasn’t the first Charlotte.

Before her, there had been her aunt, her mother’s sister.

The two sisters were very close, until one evening in November 1913.

No, it’s not Victor Hugo, but then, it doesn’t need to be. The minimalism works quite well for a story as bleak and tragic – and brief – as this.

Born in Berlin in 1917, Charlotte grew up to become a renowned artist thanks to her autobiographical work Life? Or theatre? The various tragedies that she interprets in her paintings are interesting enough, but if I tell you that her parents were Jewish you can probably guess how and where the drama comes in.

France had some dark secrets in the 20th century – the wars in Algeria and Indochina, nuclear tests in the Pacific – but its role in the attempted extermination of the Jewish people is the blackest of all. Even in a small town in the chunk of French territory not occupied by Germany, the refugee Charlotte is in danger. It was, therefore, perhaps a sense of guilt and not acknowledgement of the simplistic prose that motivated the judges of the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens to award Charlotte its top prize in 2014.

The prose may be one dimensional, but it’s often moving, and never bland. In the original French it might be suitable for A-level students, or even high-level GCSE students. For others, the translation by Sam Taylor is elegant and effective. Whatever the language (and it’s been translated into quite a few already), Foenkinos’s blending of Charlotte’s story with his own attempts to retrace her steps is very well done.

It’s always worth reminding oneself that the Holocaust took place, and that it was carried out by people evil enough to drag a pregnant woman to a death camp (and that’s not a spoiler: the blurb reveals as much). What’s special about Foenkinos’s novel is that this act of genocide, merely the last tragedy in Charlotte’s life, did not prevent the eponymous heroine from achieving posthumous fame.

Book review: ‘Cracked: Why Psychiatry Is Doing More Harm Than Good’, by James Davies

Do you know someone who has ‘depression’? Do you know if that same person (or those same people) have been prescribed and have consumed ‘anti-depressants’? Chances are you do. In 2011 there were nearly 47 million prescriptions for ‘anti-depressants’ in the UK alone.

I put ‘depression’ and ‘anti-depressants’ in quotation marks to indicate the high level of scepticism with which I now regard them after reading James Davies’ excellent book Cracked. What is ‘depression’? Can it be objectively diagnosed like, say, tuberculosis? If not, why do psychiatrists prescribe pills to combat it? Are these pills effective? And, perhaps more importantly, do they have any negative side effects?

Davies attempts to answer these questions through numerous interviews with important figures in psychiatry and his own experiences working in the NHS. The results are startling: depression is hugely subjective; and anti-depressants are usually no better than placebos, sometimes have very nasty side effects, and have become more common as the pharmaceutical industry has bought the influence of ever more psychiatrists.

A qualified psychotherapist with a PhD in medical and social anthropology, Davies argues that the cavalier diagnosis of ‘depression’ is part of a worrying trend, which is the attempt to categorise as ‘disorders’ what were hitherto regarded as normal human emotions and physiological states. Grief makes everyone sad. Accumulated failures in love, life and the workplace would weigh heavily on anyone, especially when combined with repeated gorging on drink and drugs. It’s largely thanks to some clever and relentless marketing from various pharmaceutical giants that people in the west and beyond have begun to regard such states as neurological shortcomings that can be cured with a course of medication.

Take another, perhaps less insidious but no less disturbing, example, female sexual dysfunction (FSD). With the rampant sexualisation of everyday life and the creation of Viagra, pharmaceutical marketing teams had little trouble convincing the western public that women who showed little desire for heterosexual intercourse were sexually dysfunctional. The good news here is that the resulting pill (pink, naturally) has barely sold, despite billions of dollars of research, investment and marketing.

While the detailed analysis of depression in adults is fascinating and urgent, I would dearly have liked Davies to explore the mass drugging of adolescents and even children that is now common in Britain and the USA to combat ‘disorders’ such as ‘ADHD’ and its even flimsier off-shoot ‘Oppositional Defiance Disorder’. Like depression, these ‘disorders’ are almost wholly subjective and combatted with dubious pills that may have very damaging side effects.

Then again, I suppose it’s the mark of a good book and a good writer that one ends with a desire for more, not less.