A family saga that is variously compelling, trashy and horrific, this debut has rough edges and plausibility problems—not unlike the Stieg Larsson trilogy—and movie written all over it.
Siem Sigerius is a former judo champ whose math skills help him rise to head a Dutch university. While on a business trip, he discovers his beautiful stepdaughter Joni is the main character in a homemade porn website, which she has developed with her partner, Aaron, and turned into a seven-figure enterprise. Into the picture shambles Wilbert, Siem’s son from his first marriage, a nasty character whom Siem and Joni perjured into jail six years before the main action begins. Buwalda, a one-time Dutch journalist, shifts points of view and time frames, making frequent allusions to one terrible event while maintaining a patina of familial order, of dinners, dates, vacations. Yet not only do awful revelations and revenge hang over the household, the family is marked across generations by small and large deceits. The jagged structure suggests a film director who went into the editing room with some coke and bourbon and cut his footage with runic abandon. The method works in part to stoke suspense. Siem’s surprising fate is referred to laconically on Page 69, one impetus for it starts at 249, and the big blow doesn’t arrive until near the end. At the same time, some things stoke disbelief, notably what pushes Siem over the edge and Joni’s progress from website floozy to McKinsey intern to submersion in the California skin trade, shedding a husband and child along the way.
Buwalda’s writing, in translation from Dutch, is a cut above the potboiler this might be with more corpses. His strength are sustained scenes that will linger in memory after other parts of the brain have given up on fitting together the pieces of this puzzler.