Putting my thoughts together for a post on Claude Inga Barbey’s book Le Palais de Sucre hasn’t been easy. I finished this memoir a few weeks ago and have been allowing myself appropriate ‘stewing’ time before writing anything about it. And I’ve decided to avoid a more formal review because my reaction to it is more a wanting to discuss, rather than evaluate.Essentially, the book is Barbey’s retelling of her experiences in a psychiatric clinic, once when she was thirteen and again when she is in her thirties. Both clinical stays are prompted by Barbey suffering from acute dysmenorrhea.
The memoir centers around Barbey’s obsession with and interpretation of The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen and in order to really understand her book I found I needed to read this fairy tale – even if most of the story is retold by Barbey.
The younger Barbey has been recently abandoned by her mother. She lives in a complete fantasy world while at the clinic, constructed around herself as a character in the fairy tale – she is the little boy who gets a piece of mirror in his eye and can only see ugliness around him, whose heart turns to stone and who turns against his best friend Gerda. Barbey plays with the idea of becoming ice, of freezing altogether. What I found very interesting is that her illness, which although a difficult experience for her, is the only thing that keeps her from disappearing:
On croit que je suis perdue…Mais le corps possède dans son antre rouge et sombre une source inépuisable, comme l’eau dans le ventre de la terre. Aucun scientifique n’est jamais parvenu à la trouver. Il paraît que c’est la source de la féminité. Je suis gelée, mais mon corps saigne….Je ne comprends pas d’ou vient tout ce sang…Est-ce qu’il était au fond de moi depuis toujours?… comme une nappe souterraine?
[They think that I’m lost…But within the body’s red and somber den there is a bottomless spring, like water in the earth’s belly. No scientist has ever been able to find it. It’s said to be the source of femininity. I am frozen, but my body bleeds…I don’t understand where all this blood is coming from…Was it inside of me all along? …like some subterranean layer?]
The adult Barbey moves from subject to subject: her illness, memories of her scarred childhood, her understanding of her own fragility and reflections on the other residents at the clinic. There isn’t a strong narrative thread except the constant allusion to her childhood which is brought up mostly through the conversations she has with her doctor and direct flashbacks. But even without this kind of structural backbone, Barbey’s writing carried me across the pages. She has a keen eye for detail and uses both disconcerting and elegant imagery to express her difficult reflections.
This memoir, although difficult, was a doubly satisfying read. I found myself not only invested in Barbey’s personal transformation but also in her ability to describe that transformation with such lovely prose.