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When British author Liz Jensen started writing “The Ninth Life of Louis Drax” (Bloomsbury), her fifth novel, she didn’t quite realize it was autobiographical. The thriller unravels the mystery of what happened to Louis, a somber and sometimes even monstrous nine-year-old, who falls off a cliff during an argument with his mother at a family picnic gone awry and lands in a coma.
In the Thirties, on a holiday in Switzerland, Jensen’s grandmother had a fight with one of her sons, who went off into the mountains and was never seen or heard from again. When the weather turned bad and the search parties were called off, she insisted on going out to look for him. The grandmother died falling off a cliff.
“Nobody really knows what happened,” says the novelist. “It’s still a mystery.” Jensen’s mother was orphaned at 11 and brought up by an aunt and uncle. “When I started to write about a family going on a picnic in the mountains, that must have been in the back of my mind, but I didn’t realize until I was well into the book that I was writing about it.”
As for her mother’s reaction to the finished product, “she loves reading my books, but this is the one book that she just doesn’t get.”
“Louis Drax” has been a runaway success in the U.K., where it was published last summer (it hits bookstores Stateside this month). It has been compared with Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” which features another unusual hero, one who is afflicted with a disease akin to Asperger’s Syndrome. As it turns out, the two writers share a literary agent. Haddon turned in his book shortly before Jensen, and both books could soon be films: Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B, owns the rights to “Curious Incident,” and writer/director Anthony Minghella bought “Louis Drax.” (While “Curious Incident” crossed generations in readership, “Louis Drax” is more of a thriller marketed to adults.)
“I can now see it as a movie,” Jensen says, adding that Minghella’s optioning of the project took her by surprise. But the film “will give back my own story to me,” she explains. “I know I’ll be surprised and delighted — I’m looking forward to seeing what’s different.”
Jensen always wanted to write a novel from the perspective of a child. “I have two boys of my own and I love the way they talk, that playground language that I hear at home,” she says. (She splits her time between England and Denmark, where her boyfriend, also a writer, lives.) To give Louis a voice, she stole neologisms from her 10- and 15-year-old sons, such as “donkey dick,” which is what they call a certain type of French sausage they like.
The narrative is split between Louis and Dr. Dannachet, his physician, who develops an obsession for Louis’ mother. “Louis was easy to write,” Jensen says. “It was the grown-up part that was hard.”
Despite Jensen’s success, the most important review, so far, has come from her elder son: “He stayed up all night reading it,” she says. “He absolutely loved it. There is a fear among children of writers that they won’t like what they’re parents produce, so it was a big relief.”