Lou Bertignac has an IQ of 160 and a good friend called Lucas, who gets her through the school day. At home her father cries in secret in the bathroom and her mother hasn’t been out of the house properly for years. But Lou is about to change her life – and that of her parents – for good, all because of a school project she decides to do about the homeless. Through the project Lou meets No, a teenage girl living on the streets. As their friendship grows, Lou cannot bear that No is still on the streets when she goes back home – even if it is to a home that is saddened and desolate. So she asks her parents if No can come to live with them. To her astonishment, her parents – eventually – agree. No’s presence forces Lou and her parents to finally face the sadness that has enveloped them. But No has disruptive as well as positive effects. Can this shaky newfound family continue to live together?
A tense, brilliant novel tackling the true meaning of home and homelessness. - Synopsis from Goodreads
At just 246 pages, No and Me is a slight book, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it volume I found tucked in the dusty, unfrequented back shelves, behind a stand of current best-sellers in sparkly foil jackets. I remembered seeing a friend’s review praising the book for its charm, and if you’re familiar with my own reviews you’ll know I can’t resist a quiet, moving story. So I hooked it out with a finger – it had obviously been jammed there on the bottom shelf for a while – and brought it home to be read. And now that’s it’s read, rather loved.
No and Me is a subtle and tender story about home and homelessness, told through the gentle, unique perspective of Lou, an ‘intellectually precocious’ thirteen year old girl. Lou’s family is quietly falling apart in the wake of a tragedy: they are a seemingly functional unit, yet they are separated and circling each other like satellites, held in orbit by the gravity of their unvoiced pain. Advanced through the school system by two years, Lou is struggling to find her footing socially, to align the intellectual and emotional worlds she inhabits.
Then Lou meets and befriends No, a girl living on the streets of Paris, with a fractured past and a bleak future. As No enters the lives of Lou and her family, she irrevocably changes them, and the way Lou sees the world.
I’m not sure how much of the rather distinct tone of this book is attributable to Delphine de Vigan’s particular writing style, and how much is owed to the translation from French to English. Regardless, there is a delicate beauty to this story and the unembellished manner in which it is told. There is something in Lou’s narration, the way she constantly filters, processes and analyses the world, the particular angle of her perspective and quirks of her personality, that speaks eloquently of the fragility of life and relationships. De Vigan’s writing is both clear and expressive, with some exceptionally lovely, quotable lines.
There is a touching naivety and simplicity to the way Lou views No, and her sense of responsibility to affect change where she can. At one point, Lou says that it’s the “buts” that are the problem. If we saw past them, chose to act in spite of our reservations, maybe we could accomplish more. In some ways, this is more than a story about just No’s life and it’s juxtaposition with Lou’s, but also that of Lou’s coming of age, in the sense that she begins to understand the difference between expectations and reality, what it really means to trust, to be let down, to understand that even our best efforts and intentions are not always enough for someone who is broken. What it is to feel impotent against a harsh world.
The characters are lovingly crafted, with distinct personalities and dimension despite the sparseness of description and page time for some of them. From Lou’s shattered mother, her quietly stoic father, No’s thorny exterior and bruised heart, Lucas’ fearless nonchalance, each of them feel real and nuanced, and have strong presence throughout the story as it unfolds.
The quietness of No and Me may not be to the particular taste of some readers – it’s a story that builds gradually and is weighted by Lou’s introspection. It’s a book to be savoured and internalized. It’s restrained and understated. But personally, I found it exceptionally lovely and thought-provoking, with a lot of honesty, emotion and depth within its comparatively few pages.
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication Date: first published 22 August 2007