We’ve seen a number of interesting novels from the Netherlands lately, but few have been better than this engrossing saga of a Dutch Jewish family’s experiences of personal upheaval in the East Indies and WWII upon returning to Holland.
Their story is told in retrospect by Louise “Lulu” Benda, whose memories extend back to her early childhood in an exotic “paradise” where “gods” are believed to prowl lush gardens and figures from Javanese mythology seem every bit as real as Lulu’s father Cees, a compassionate doctor, her mother Hélène, and (maternal) Aunt Margot, plus the playful, vaguely sinister Felix, Cees’s brother, and—as Lulu barely intuits—a threat to both “Aunty Margot’s” happiness and her parents’ marriage. The enigmatic Uncle Felix is one of several omens (such as the tale of the sorrowful Javanese Princess Dewi Kesuma) that influence and complicate Lulu’s gradual understanding of the forces that drive her family back to Europe (first to the comparative safety of The Hague), and to the numerous relatives whom she encounters (the most memorable being her authoritarian “Granny Mimi,” who has “banned a number of topics of conversation, such as war and someone called Hitla”). Ruebsamen uses Lulu’s initially inchoate consciousness beautifully, building up a complex contrast between the limpid, seductive “song” of her innocent years in the Indies and the abrasive “truth” of her unhappy maturing in the crucible of her war-torn mother country. The tale is further distinguished by vivid, patiently assembled characterizations of such striking figures as Lulu’s stoical, stubbornly decent and heroic father, her young “other Aunt” Tinka (a child of the Indies who cannot survive in the sluggish, destroyed atmosphere of Holland’s “Wetlands”), and the Bendas’ affable maidservant Aleida, a perverse maternal figure whose powerful sexuality both repels and fascinates the preadolescent Lulu.
A virtuosic interweaving of myth, history, and imagination.