The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 10 March 2003

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

A Memoir of Life in Death

by Jean-Dominique Bauby

In December 1995 and at the young age of 44, Bauby, the editor of French Elle magazine, was felled by a cerebrovascular accident (basically a severe stroke), which rather than kill him, gave him the unenviable ailment known as "locked-in syndrome". This condition allows the mind of its sufferer to thrive alive and undamaged within a body without any motor control. In Bauby's case, his only connection to the outside world was the ability to blink his left eye. Later, he was able to develop some limited motor skills, and with this frozen body, he was still able to write this compelling little memoir of the experience. With the help of a speech therapist, he painstakingly selected the individual letters of the individual words that make up his story. While the tale would, on its face, sound potentially maudlin and overwrought, Bauby is in fact a lively and hopeful reporter of his miserable condition. He tells of coming out of his long coma and the slow realization of his cruel fate. He tells of the little moments in the days that give him hope and warmth. And he tells of the power of his imagination, to relive the great events of his life, and to invent new ones. It really is a powerful narrative from a man who must have known his days were severely numbered (he died just two days after its publication, 15 months after the stroke). It will make the reader realize his good fortune in life. The book is not pathetic. Bauby is not wallowing in self-pity (though he might be allowed a little, after all). A curious and hopeful book.

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