Book Review: The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

This isn’t the kind of book I would usually go for, but I’d heard good things and it’s cropped up on a few “books you should read” lists, so when I found myself on a book buying binge at Waterstone’s this ended up in my bag with a few others.

Well, this book proves that you shouldn’t be afraid to enter new realms of reading, because I loved this book.


The book is a collection of short vignettes that Bauby from his hospital bed where he was confined following a stroke which left him suffering from “locked in” syndrome. Unable to move apart from small head movements and blinking his left eye, the fact that he wrote this book at all is a massive achievement. The book was written thanks to a clever system devised by his care team, whereby they would go through an adapted French alphabet (letters arranged by usage) and Bauby would blink when they struck upon the right letter. Through this slow system this whole book was written, with Bauby planning and writing the entries in his head before his assistant arrived.

While this would have served to make the book interesting as a novelty, what really helps is that Bauby’s writing is fantastic. Each section is only a handful of pages long but in each he creates detailed, elegant episodes revolving around his memories, daydreams and experiences at the hospital. He captures the emotions of different visitors, the tedium and discomfort of time on the ward, and a painful sense of loss, longing and regret as he reflects not only on the things in his past he will never be able to do but also the possible futures which have now been denied to him.

Bauby’s writing covers a plethora of emotions and caused all sort of responses in me as I read. There are heartbreaking moments, such as the visits he has from family or moments where he dives deep into the loneliness and isolation of his condition. But there are funny moments, with Bauby capturing a sense of the characters he meets and showcasing a wit which at times is jet black.

Most of all there’s this oddly life affirming aspect. Despite all that his body has gone through and all the things he is unable to do, Bauby’s spirit endures. His intelligence, humour, passions remain. It’s comforting to know that the human spirit is so hardy, that it can endure all these things and keep going.

This is a superb read, emotionally powerful and evocative, filled with charm and character that makes Bauby a figure you’re happy to spend time with. His writing has moments of intense poetic imagery, but avoids pretension. I can’t recommend giving this a go enough, even if it doesn’t sound like your kind of book. It’s just wonderful.

Verdict: A fabulous book. Bauby shows such talent and personality here that I found myself regretting that he didn’t write more. Magnificent. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


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