The metaphor of rowing gathers a rich nexus of meanings in this terse, haunting novel, the first from yet another accomplished writer from the Netherlands.
It’s the story of a relationship that is and isn’t a friendship, narrated by Anton, a young resident of Amsterdam, as he revisits the destroyed places where he had spent his youth, on the eve of the city’s liberation during the waning days of the WWII. Anton specifically recalls the summers of 1938 and 1939, when he found relief from the drab life circumscribed by his father’s job as a train station attendant and their unlovely home (“the roof that the housing corporation had given us . . . also shut out light and air”) in joining a posh rowing “club” and pairing with David, a child of wealth and privilege, under the tutelage of their enigmatic German coach Dr. Schneiderhahn. Van den Brink telescopes much of what occurs outside the “world” of the club and the river, deftly contrasting Anton’s nostalgic reveries with brief glimpses of the havoc that had spread even to the lavish home where David (whose later fate is not disclosed) had seemed safe, if not invulnerable. Anton’s plaintive yearning for “the strange life on the water that we shared” expresses both his unrealized hope for a fuller life and a subtly suggested confession of his borderline-sexual infatuation with the charismatic, somewhat distant David (a possibly mutual attraction also embedded in a story David tells, about separated Platonic “halves” forever seeking reunion), while also offering a muted lament for windswept, perfect summer days, part of the beauty decimated by Hitler’s inexorable momentum. The novel’s elegiac tone is effectively varied by van den Brink’s obviously knowledgeable re-creations of the experiences of oarsmen, which culminate in a vividly described climactic championship race.
Readers may be reminded of Alan Sillitoe’s “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” perhaps also of John Knowles’s A Separate Peace. Still, On the Water is a work of real originality, and a fine introduction to a splendid new novelist.