Book Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

This miracle of a book is the product of painstaking effort put in by Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor of the French Elle magazine and Claude Mendibil, the woman who took down what he dictated.

In a nutshell, Bauby- who was a celebrated editor- suffered a massive stroke and ended up “locked-in”. In other words, his mind was alert but his body inert, leaving his only means of communication a blinking left eye. The title was an expression of how he felt, trapped under a diving bell with his mind taking “flight like a butterfly”. Through a special alphabet system his speech therapist came up with- where each blink of his eye represented a letter- Bauby penned this 131-page memoir of his days as an invalid. He died two days after the French publication of his book.  

The book was very easy to read and I was done with it in barely a day. Contrary to what I had imagined, the book wasn’t sappy or melodramatic. If you are looking for a sob story, an in-depth look into a man’s past or a tale soaked in self-pity, this novel definitely isn’t it. Rather Bauby wrote about everything with a brave, almost-light heart, looking at little incidents in his past, in his final days and what journeys his mind went on in his captive, vegetable state.

At the end of everything, I was just moved by the power of the human mind and Bauby’s spirit to go on living, and to keep his mind active. To be alive, and trapped in one’s body is a horrifying prospect I can hardly imagine, but Bauby’s attempt to communicate with the world about what he was going through is one simply of courage and grace.

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