A destroyed family and an artfully concealed secret history are laid bare with near-surgical precision in this superbly constructed 1999 novel, the fifth (and first in English translation) by one of Holland’s most accomplished and respected writers.
It begins in 1973 with a heartstopping description of Inez Herman’s discovery of the body of her neighbors’ young daughter Vera Klein at the bottom of the Hermans’ swimming pool. Then, in present-tense narration, and rapid-fire sequences of brief declarative sentences, van den Boogard focuses on the grief of Vera’s mother Oda Klein, her withdrawal from her stricken husband Paul (a career army officer), and Paul’s later “escape” to a military post in Suriname, and his three-year separation from Oda. Then the narrative leaps ahead to 1980, Paul’s return home and muted reconciliation with the emotionally opaque Oda: a situation that’s complicated when Daisy—a 15-year-old American girl staying with the Hermans—becomes the Kleins’ houseguest, remaining with them after the Hermans’ house has been mostly destroyed by a mysterious fire; becoming, in effect, a replacement for the daughter Oda and Paul have lost. Van den Boogard tells this highly charged, haunting story in a series of crisp scenes that shuttle between present and past, reaching crisis points when the impulsive Daisy resists her hosts’ protective embrace, and in the revelatory climactic pages, when Paul’s fellow officer Emil (scarcely a presence until late in the book) becomes the missing piece to the puzzles of Paul’s depressive resignation and Oda’s “excruciating, inhuman, constant aloofness.” The continually shifting tone and texture are further enriched by sudden striking images (e.g., a bedroom window looks “like a cage suspended in the dark”) and deft, lightning-quick transitions among its several principal characters’ limited (indeed occluded) viewpoints.
Margriet de Moor, Tessa De Loo, Arthur Japin, Renate Dorrestein—and now Oscar van den Boogard. Are there any more brilliant Dutch novelists out there awaiting English translation? Stay tuned.