An intense domestic thriller in which a beloved only child’s death destroys an already shaky marriage.
The bestselling Dutch author (A Heart of Stone, 2001) tells her story largely through numerous discrete flashbacks, ones that reveal both the protected childhood of Jem Vermeer, later murdered in a disco at the age of 15, and the early years of Jem’s distraught stepfather Phinus, who was orphaned young and raised by two eccentric maiden aunts. In the present action, Phinus (who works for a company that produces board games and puzzles) and his wife Franka (Jem’s mother) have embarked on a country weekend trip. Before it’s over, they’ll encounter a pair of menacing teenaged girls, Phinus’s carefully repressed destructive emotions will surface, and long-festering tensions between him and Franka that date from Jem’s death will push them further apart. Dorrestein’s taut prose and firm concentration on her characters’ guilts and fears create several memorable confrontations between warmhearted, impulsive Franka (a social worker sustained by her faith that sociopaths are redeemable) and introverted, secretive Phinus (who knows Jem’s death could have been avoided). And flashbacks to the trial of Jem’s killer (a wretchedly unstable boy) and its aftermath are chilling in their reportorial sparseness and clarity. But Without Mercy evolves into excessive melodramatic contrivance, involving the aforementioned adolescent girls (unconvincingly portrayed as, simultaneously, callous adventuresses and frightened kids), and also—in a scarcely credible sequence—Jem’s girlfriend Sanne, who has turned to Phinus for comfort. Virtually none of the story’s later plot developments have any of the power of the fragmentary glimpses Dorrestein gives us of Jem’s unruly charm, of Phinus’s boyhood yearning to belong to a family, and of the pathos inherent in the fate of each. The overall impression thus given is of an opportunity missed.
Dorrestein is a potent writer, but, despite some splendid moments, this is a disappointing successor to A Heart of Stone.