A family drama unfolds in a wealthy housing estate in Belgian author de Coster's first novel to be translated into English.
If the family is the basic unit of society, is the family drama the basic unit of fiction? Maybe not—but it’s not going anywhere. De Coster’s take on the oft-visited genre lands us in a mountain housing estate near Flanders. Uptight Mieke is the mother, doleful Stefaan is the father, and rebellious Sarah is their daughter. They’re an upper-class family with their own fair share of demons: Mieke’s brother seems to be involved in uncouth business dealings; Sarah seems to flirt with an eating disorder; and Stefaan is in danger of falling into a family pattern of depression and suicide. The novel begins in 1980 and ends in 2013; in between, Sarah grows up, and Mieke and Stefaan grow older, but it’s hard to say whether anyone in the story really grows as a person. These are rather hateful characters; there isn’t much to admire about any one of them—and after Stefaan engages in some violence later in the book, it’s hard to even sympathize with his inner struggles. De Coster is a smart, witty writer with a real talent for storytelling, but she seems to rush through the big stuff—big emotions, big changes—which makes it harder to really believe in her invented worlds. The novel alternates between Mieke’s, Stefaan’s, and Sarah’s points of view, but there is also occasional reference to a plural “we,” a kind of invisible Greek-style chorus (“We climb the mountain slowly”; “We step away from the path to the front door”; “It charges us with energy and passion”). Unfortunately, these “we” moments occur too occasionally; they seem to be a quirk of the storytelling, an ill-thought-out afterthought more than anything else.
By blurring over psychological complexity, de Coster makes it more difficult to sympathize with her taxing characters.