During a bout of insomnia, a young widow ruminates on her husband’s suicide. While a Bundt cake bakes in the oven and the house is silent, she scrutinizes the past for telling details, the moment on which everything hangs.
Compact, haunting, and lovely, the story takes place over the course of one long night interspersed with flashbacks to the unnamed narrator’s young adulthood. She recalls meeting her husband, Ton, as college students in the late 1960s and their fall through winter ice while skating on frozen canals. We learn of their brief marriage, as they establish themselves as a couple on Ton’s inherited family farm. Dutch author de Moor (The Kreutzer Sonata, 2014, etc.) was a classical singer and pianist before becoming a writer, and even in translation, her prose retains a balanced, musical quality. Descriptions of places and people are evocative, but de Moor also renders more abstract concepts—such as what it’s like to be alone and wide awake in the middle of the night—with razor-sharp specificity: “The fever of sleeplessness drives people to do the strangest things. They whisper poems that appear in mirror-writing behind their eyes, weigh grains of rice on imaginary scales, picture themselves lying on a bed of red velvet.” Despite the novel’s short length, it is unhurried and assured; no word is wasted even as de Moor spends paragraphs recounting often slow and mundane processes, like mixing eggs and milk and yeast to make dough. Yet there is vitality in the chores, too, as when the dough is later kneaded, when the widow begins “slamming my fists into the pale, pliant lump in front of me.” In both its rich and unapologetic descriptions of domesticity and frank attitude toward sex (as the widow’s cake bakes, her latest lover lies asleep upstairs), the book is a treatise on one individual’s womanhood.
De Moor's book fails to provide easy answers or pat conclusions, but of course life is like that, too. Like the widow, we must all learn to tolerate that which is ambiguous, unexplained, incomplete.