The conceit of this novel is a reunion of two Dutch brothers, one who escaped to America with his mother shortly after the close of World War II and another who stayed in Holland, bitter at his mother’s escape and tormented by the memory of having betrayed Anne Frank’s family in August 1944.
Lourie (Sakharov: A Biography, 2002, etc.) begins the novel by taking us back to Holland shortly before the German invasion of Poland. While only a child, Joop already feels in his family a tension between loyalty to Holland and sympathy for the German cause. After the occupation of Holland in May 1940, Joop and his friend Kees make an adolescent gesture toward rebellion by attempting to put sand in the gas tank of a German jeep, but Joop’s uncle Frans, who has welcomed the occupation forces and later loses his legs fighting for Germany on the eastern front, catches them and broadly hints to Joop’s father what they’ve been up to. This intimation of resistance leads Joop’s father to give his son the biggest beating of his life—not because of ideological reasons but rather because Joop’s foolish act could have endangered the entire family. As the war progresses, the family’s want increases, and Joop is led both to steal food for his family and to earn money making surreptitious deliveries to families hiding Jews. Desperation grows—the title refers to Joop’s painful memory of having to eat boiled tulip bulbs during these days of scarcity—and when Joop’s father gets ill, the family crisis grows even more acute. Joop knows he can make more money turning Jews over to the authorities than finding intermittent work as a delivery boy, so he makes the harrowing decision to save his father by betraying the family at 263 Prinsengracht. Even 60 years after the war, Joop feels embittered toward his younger brother, whom he in part holds responsible for his agonized choice.
A haunting novel that doesn’t fully resolve the tensions it dramatizes.