On the cusp of World War I, a Catholic boys' school teacher in Flanders alienates himself with his contrary views on religion before being overcome by dark circumstances as a soldier.
We know from the opening pages of this Dutch novel the sad fate of the teacher, David Verbocht. He's tied to a post, facing a firing squad. We learn why only after his full story has been told. David is the son of a university handyman who somehow arranged for him to get the teaching job, for which he is unprepared and ill-suited. He has never attended church and doesn't plan to even if it is a job requirement. "I see religion as a leaking lifeboat for the ill and frail," he tells the shocked town priest. Haunted by the childhood death of his inquisitive younger brother, David is drawn to Marcus, the smartest and most sensitive kid in his class—and Godaleva, the boy's attractive mother, who appreciates his mentoring her bookish son in ways the boy's harshly pragmatic father does not. David agrees to take Marcus along with him on his Sunday walks. Taking it upon himself to teach his student how to swim, he sets in motion a tragic chain of events that follows him into his stint in the Belgian army. So spare and classic are its virtues, this is a novel that could have been written decades ago. But there's deep complexity in its considerations of fate, morality, and belief. "I'm not afraid. I did my best," David says, moments from death, a comment that reverberates through the book. What, in fact, is the best that a mortal man can do?
A bestseller in the Netherlands, Vantoortelboom's novel doesn't quite rise to the level of greatness. But it is an affecting and at times amusing work and a story exceptionally well-told.