Diagnosed with a terminal illness, a mother known for her lack of empathy reunites with her daughter, but will the pair finally be able to connect? The U.S. debut of a prizewinning Dutch author offers a far from conventional response.
Bizarre interior landscapes are exposed to the light in Gerritsen’s off-kilter, at times blackly comic work of fiction. The baldness of its opening sets the tone, as Elisabeth de Wit unexpectedly encounters Coco, the adult daughter she rarely sees, on a busy street and seizes the moment to reveal she’s dying of untreatable cancer. “ ‘You’re not likely to live a long time with something like this,’ Elisabeth tells her daughter. ‘Not likely?’ ‘Probably not.’ ‘Christ.’ ‘We’ll call each other. Let’s call. Yes? We’ll call?’ ” Elisabeth found motherhood perplexing and uncomfortable, and after her marriage to Wilbert broke down, 5-year-old Coco spent six days a week with her father and stepmother. But now Coco wants to move back in with Elisabeth and take care of her. In cool prose and naturalistic dialogue, Gerritsen explores Elisabeth and Coco’s restored proximity, their internal dialogues and idiosyncratic norms as they interact with each other and a small surrounding cast: Wilbert and his new wife, Miriam, Coco’s boyfriend, Hans, Elisabeth’s hairdresser, and her employer at a frame store. Mother and daughter make efforts to reach each other across an ingrained history of misunderstanding, but isolation seems immutable as each pursues her private trajectory, Coco’s driven—dangerously—by her cravings, Elisabeth’s by her corporeal state. Gerritsen’s searching story of alienation and separation may well engender discomfort in the reader, yet there’s empathy too, especially in Elisabeth’s slow fade from the picture.
The lives of others, in all their peculiarity, are given sympathetic scrutiny in this diverting European oddity.