An aging man loses his daughter and regains his wife, which strikes him as hardly a fair trade.
Jörgen, the sullen, irascible hero of this novel, is in late middle age and hitting the skids. He’s been forced into early retirement at the publisher where he’d edited unprofitable novels in translation, his two daughters are distant, and his estranged wife is insinuating herself back into his tidy Amsterdam home. A large investment of his vaporized after 9/11, and the book is something of an allegory about how post-terror anxiety undoes middle-class certainties and unlocks our latent violence. The plot centers on a graduation party for Jörgen’s eldest daughter, Tirza, who is planning a trip to Namibia with her boyfriend, who reminds Jorgen of Mohammed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker. Jörgen is suffering from the hectoring of his shallow, judgmental wife, and his daughters haven’t always shown shrewd judgment. (He caught his youngest daughter, Ibi, having sex with a tenant in his home when she was 15.) But it’s also clear that something is broken within Jörgen himself, and the closing pages clarify just how tragic the break is. The latter third of the novel is set in Namibia, where Tirza has fallen curiously silent, and during his search, he befriends an impoverished 9-year-old girl whose waiflike wanderings mirror his own. To his credit, Grunberg (The Jewish Messiah, 2008, etc.) convincingly renders this unlikely scenario, though the book never quite settles into either a character study or a cultural study. The author at times positions Jorgen as a thin archetype of contemporary racism and bourgeois rage, but the book is redeemed by the clarity of the prose and the intensity of its core mystery, leaving Tirza’s fate uncertain while her father’s becomes lamentably clear.
Despite its contrivances, an important and suspenseful addition to post-9/11 literature.