If you’ve ever known someone in a coma, you’ve probably sat bedside and talked to him or her. You may have wondered, am I talking to thin air? Does this help?
In I’m Still Here, first-time novelist Clélie Avit explores an answer.
When Elsa regains consciousness, she has already spent months in a hospital bed. A mountain-climbing accident left her in a coma that doctors aren’t sure she can overcome. Awareness is major progress—but Elsa can only hear, not move or speak. No one can tell that her condition has changed. Visitors have decreased in frequency as the months passed. Elsa’s family members speak when they’re around, but mostly to each other, not to Elsa.
Then Thibault stumbles into her room.
It’s a mistake; Thibault is visiting his brother, who has taken up residence a few doors down after a drunk-driving accident in which he was the driver. Things are tense between Thibault and his brother, and it’s exacerbating his mother’s distress. He steps into Elsa’s room looking for a place to get away, but he can’t help but start a conversation once he’s there.
Thibault’s visits give Elsa a thread of hope. She focuses on his words, willing herself to open her eyes or otherwise show she’s still there. And though he can’t explain why, Thibault is convinced that he isn’t just talking to an empty room.
Avit’s debut, translated from French, will draw readers deep into the private worlds of its characters. Their stories are revealed in alternating chapters. Elsa’s is necessarily slow to develop. After months unconscious, she must rely on the words she hears to understand what landed her in this state. Thibault, on the other hand, interacts with other people and moves beyond the world of the hospital. But his is still a private viewpoint, as he is slow to let people in.
I’m Still Here is a study in character development. It’s a quiet novel that packs dramatic tension into a mostly one-room world. Avit’s deft hand suggests the promise of more to come.