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3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
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on 14 September 2007
This is an incredible novella. Think Albert Camus meets Primo Levi, writing about 'Big Brother'.

The book's very premise is so horrifying, so obscene that I stopped for about ten minutes on page 12 to decide whether to continue, or whether to fling it into the wastebin. But the latter simply wasn't an option.

But as a comment on humanity, and on certain aspects of the times in which we live, it is amazing.

One minor gripe: the UK publishers use a quote from Dan Rhodes (himself an excellent novellist) talking about reading Nothomb as being 'fun'. That's the last word I'd use to describe this piece, despite its overall cynicsm and the occasional moment of astonishingly black comedy.

An absolute must-read.
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on 3 December 2008
Really more of a short story than a novel but one in which the author manages to cram more ideas into the 120 odd pages than some others manage in a whole series of books. First published in 2005 the subject matter of reality television is extremely modern but the feel of the story seems to owe more to the writing of the likes of George Orwell, Primo Levi and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

The initial concept is deliberately shocking and all to easy to believe but the writers real strength is in her ability to create such intense characters and situations with the minimum of words. You get very little information on the majority of the characters, in most cases you don't even get their names only their designated number, but they are all extremely recognisable.

The very shortness of the book is however where its main weakness lies. All these fantastic characters, ideas and possibilities just aren't developed and there is a certain disappointment associated with this. What you are left with however is a modern cautionary fable that is guaranteed to make you think.
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on 3 February 2009
This is the only Amélie Nothomb book I've ever read, so I can't really say whether it's better than her other books or not. I bought this book out of curiosity, because I'd seen Amélie Nothomb at a book signing in my hometown of Lille and wanted to finally find out what the big deal was about her.

'Acide Sulfurique' is disturbing to say the least, with a real-TV show based on concentration camps and candidates having to survive. I read it a long time ago, but I remember finishing it within an hour or so and even though I was not that impressed with Nothomb's writing, I found the topic interesting as far as our society is concerned. What we see on television is getting more and more obscene, and the human race never seems to learn its lesson. So could something so horrible ever happen? I think it is a thought-provoking book and it makes you question yourself and our world's ideology. And a book that makes you think can never be so bad.
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Sulphuric Acid is positively bubbling over with ideas.

A TV company has decided to recreate a concentration camp and populate it with prisoners. Every aspect of the camp is televised and the show tops the ratings.

It is never explained whether the prisoners have done anything to warrant selection for the camp but it is said that they were rounded up in raids. The names of the guards and the few named prisoners are from various European languages so there is no obvious attempt to portray distinct groups. And the guards are drawn from successful applicants from the general public.

At first, we see a recreation of the Zimbardo experiment where some students are designated prisoners and some as guards. We see bizarre morality systems developing which are used by participants to justify the obvious injustice of the situation. On the one hand this is abstract but on the other hand, there appear to be direct parallels to some of the famous WW2 stories.

But as the story develops, the Big Brother elements start to weigh more heavily - and that is Big Brother the TV show, not Big Brother the Orwellian character. Kapo Zdena, the most prominent guard, has a clear focus on how she wants to use the programme to improve her popularity and standing in the outside world. Meanwhile, Pannonique, the most prominent prisoner decides to try to thwart the camp by refusing to show any emotion in the hope of stifling the televisual experience. But as so often happens on these reality TV programmes, the outcome is not what was intended. Kapo Zdena tries to appear intelligent but ends up being reviled - and she knows it. Pannonique ends up being idolised - but has no access to the outside world so doesn't have confirmation of this. With time passing, the characters focus more on life within the camp and show less concern about the outside world apart from the occasional moment of grandstanding.

So far, so good, but the novella starts to fall apart as Pannonique is turned into a martyred heroine. Firstly she decides to be God and later to be Jesus. It starts to make her seem deluded and self-indulgent, but these are characteristics that her role cannot support. Pannonique has to be perfection personified in order to elicit the reactions and responses from others. Once she shows personal failings, she should subside back into the pack.

This leads on to the public reactions. There are interesting ideas at play with the public being the real villains for watching - despite their supposed distaste at the whole spectacle. This is pure Big Brother where newspapers used to run story after story about how dreadful the programme was and we watched in horror as people behaved badly to one another. But the public reactions didn't quite ring true. When asked to vote for contestants on Big Brother, people vote for the strong characters rather than the weak ones. This holds true whether you are voting for people to stay or to be evicted - the strong characters persuade people to make the effort of voting whilst the weak characters just make people say "meh". Oh, and you'll never get universal popular opinion. Opinions will always be divided, especially by supposedly good characters who alienate as much as they appeal. Sadly, this undermines the main drive of the second half of the novella.

The writing is plain, simple and deadpan - but can getlost occasionally when getting into cod-philosophy. But the narrative device of giving the prisoners numbers is a mixed blessing. Although it reinforces the de-humanising effect of the camp, it also makes it difficult to distinguish between characters. Intimate conversations between CKZ114 and EPJ327 just don't work - but perhaps that's the point. The characterisation is inevitably stylised and the novel works as allegory rather than realism. But nobody ever accused reality TV of being realistic!

The plusses do outweigh the minuses. In particular, the dynamic of the exercise - the concept of a camp as an organic thing with a beginning, middle and end worked well. On the minuses, having set up so many great ideas Amelie Nothumb seems to have struggled with how to bring it all to a sensible conclusion.

Worth reading, perhaps worth reading twice as it's so short, but the sums is slightly less than the parts.
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on 19 May 2012
A large number of people are randomly incarcerated and their lives in a specially created death camp are televised for the viewing public in the latest reality TV project: working all day long, surviving on gruel and stale bread, prisoners are daily condemned to death. Inmate Pannonique captures the imagination of the public and camp alike but does she have the power to put an end to the insane project?

I'm not philosophically inclined, nor am I especially interested in popular culture, but I have enjoyed several of Nothomb's previous novels so wanted to complete the (current) canon by reading this one. It is a contemporary fable with little by way of middle ground: the characters are sheep or saints. There is a lot of philosophical idealism and the `good' are also those with the loftiness of academia behind them to argue their points, while everybody else is portrayed with a vapid emptiness. Sadly, I wasn't very interested in it and found it a little on the pretentious side, although I did enjoy the ending. Like all Nothomb's novels, it is very short, so if you are slightly interested in the subject I recommend reading it, as whether you enjoy it or not, it doesn't take long to read...
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VINE VOICEon 25 March 2008
The idea of 'Big Brother'-type shows developing a lust for blood to satiate the audience is one that has been done often enough - from "Battle Royale" to 2000ad's Judge Dredd it's a popular enough concept. Where Nothomb rises above most of the other uses of the idea is in her use of language. She is, quite simply, a fantastic writer who can sketch an immediately recognisable person or a situation in a very short sentence. This ability lends itself the power to write emotional sucker-punches in terse, immediate prose and given the subject matter of the novel that makes it very powerful indeed.
By turns a treatise upon reality TV, the power and motivations of the anonymous viewers of such programmes, and human love and redemption, 'Sulphuric Acid' is probably the best thing of Nothomb's I've read. I'd don't hand out 5-star reviews lightly (read my other reviews if you doubt me), but only when genuinely earned. An excellent - if short - novel.
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on 16 January 2012
not quite what i was expecting after i chose this book when reccomended by a friend. Interesting, but slightly depressing, sometimes a hard read if it isnt quite what you are into.

still, reccomend Amelie as she is a great writer

dispatched quickly and securely

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on 19 July 2014
Crazy Belgian sex bomb. Worth a read if you like wittily interpreted comments about our obsession with reality TV. A bit short in my opinion. Would have liked to have seen a bit more meat in the bone.
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A disappointment - given the enthusiasm of other Amazon reviewers and the other Nothomb books I have read (The Life of Hunger, Fear and Trembling), I had expected more.

A fable, of course - there is no attempt at realism, but not a theme capable of much development. At least it isn't developed much here. There are some thoughts about reality TV shows, and some thoughts about the relationship between a tormentor and a tormentee - which has some of the same ambivalence as the central relationship in Fear and Trembling.

On the other side of the balance sheet, there is Nothomb's crystal clear style - and you do always want to know what happens next. So not a write-off, by any means - just a disappointment.

But perhaps best to stick to reading the works that have a foundation in Nothomb's own life and personal experience.
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