The history of a destroyed family and the mingled guilt and rage that possess the survivor who remembers, and reimagines, their story—all rendered with hallucinatory clarity in this first English translation of yet another popular and critically acclaimed Dutch author.
“You have to harden yourself, for always,” Ellen Van Bemmel assures herself, long after the incident that took the lives of her parents and three siblings, leaving preadolescent Ellen and her younger brother Michael (nicknamed “Carlos”) to years of therapy, institutionalized care and foster families, and unending trauma. In a fragmented narrative that leaps forward and backward in time, Dorrestein creates vivid extended scenes showing the Van Bemmels as a closely knit group of busy overachievers (overseen by Frits and Margje, who operate from their home an American news clipping service, and act like lovestruck newlyweds even after producing five children). The family seems, nevertheless, vulnerable to outrageous bad luck. Carlos’s painful accident and the birth of a malformed daughter who’ll require constant care are the initial cracks in a breakdown that reduces Margje to paranoid delusions and pulls her compliant husband into the act Ellen can never forgive (“You sacrificed us to your blind love for a sick, deranged woman”). Dorrestein keeps us guessing by concentrating on her narrator’s kaleidoscopic mood swings and bouts with alcoholism, promiscuity and consequent pregnancy, a marriage that it seems she wills to fail, an interrupted medical career, and a conflicted return to the house where the ghosts of her loved ones await and all their demons lurk. And, juxtaposed against this turbulence, Dorrestein returns us again and again to the ironic Edenic vision of a loving home filled with brilliant and beautiful people who, we realize with mounting horror, are fated to become their own furies and avengers.
The climactic pages are as harrowing as anything in contemporary fiction, but you won’t want to miss a word leading up to them. A triumph.