Review published on June 24, 2016.
Next up on the literary globetrot is Holland, or should that be the Netherlands? What in fact is the difference? Well, let me tell you. The correct name is the Netherlands, but the confusion comes because the Netherlands consist of twelve provinces, which if you’re interested are: Groningen, Drenthe, Overijssel, Gelderland, Limburg, Brabant, Zeeland, Friesland, Flevoland, Utrecht, and importantly Noord (North) Holland and Zuid (South) Holland. These final two provinces together make Holland, and because of their relative populations and economic and touristic prowess, the name Holland became synonymous with the Netherlands. In reality it’s the equivalent of naming America by one of its states or the UK by one of its counties, although nevertheless it continues to be used fairly liberally. Whatever its sobriquet, mention clogs, windmills and tulips, and everyone will know where you’re on about. As well as wooden shoes, Holland, erm I mean the Netherlands – to-may-to, to-mah-to – is known for its bikes, having the most bike-friendly cities and the most bikes per capita. But they don’t just stop at bikes, no, the Netherlands is home to the bakfiet, think a bike crossed with a wheelbarrow, yes really (Don’t believe me? Look it up.). I must admit I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve thought the thing I could really do with now is a bike crossed with a wheelbarrow, but each to their own, and come to think of it, it could actually come in very handy for a trip to the bookstore. Yes, scratch that, when can I get me one? Indeed, apparently they can be used for moving house (by that I presume people moving household belongings rather than the house itself, the wheelbarrows aren’t that big). And the bakfiet aren’t all Holland (damn, I did it again) has given the world. Depending on your proclivities, they are to be thanked for giving us gin and introducing coffee to Europe. CDs, DVDs and Blu-Rays were also invented in Eindhoven, but if like me you prefer culture off screen, there’s no arguing with the Netherlands’ artistic heritage – Hieronymous Bosch, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and of course Van Gogh. And whilst its literature may not have the historical worldwide significance of its art, there are, particularly in recent years, increasing numbers of translated books emerging from the Netherlands.
Indeed a number of Dutch authors have really made their mark on the global stage, including Michel Faber who, though born in the Netherlands admittedly soon emigrated to Australia and from there to Scotland, is a writer of English-language fiction. His latest The Book of New Strange Things, published in 2014, was described as a ‘book quite unlike any other’. Dutch-born Anja de Jager similarly calls the UK home and has seen success with her English-language, Dutch-set crime series featuring cold-case detective Lotte Meerman, including A Cold Death in Amsterdam released last year and A Murderer’s Guide to Family due to be released in November. Moving in the other direction, from Bombay to the Netherlands, Ernest van der Kwast’s novel about an ice cream dynasty, titled unsurprisingly The Ice Cream Makers, will be published in July. Crime is fairly prevalent on the Dutch literary import agenda, and includes Esther Verhoef (Close-Up), Simone van der Vlugt (Safe as Houses) and Saskia Noort (The Dinner Club). Two exciting prospects are Marion Pauw’s recently released Girl in the Dark and Eva Maria Staal’s roman a clef Try the Morgue, inspired by real involvement in the international arms trade. Other genres are not as well-represented but include children’s fiction (Tonke Dragt/Annie Schmidt/Jan Terlouw) and historical fiction (Adrian Van Dis, My Father’s War; Arthur Japin, In Lucia’s Eyes). Esther Gerritsen’s tragic portrait Roxy and Tessa de Loo’s The Twins are also interesting titles.
Many of the translated Dutch authors are award winners, including Peter Buwalda, author of Bonita Avenue, who was shortlisted for twelve prizes, and went on to win the Academica Prize, the Selexyz Debut Prize, the Tzum Prize, the Anton Wachter Prize and the Leesclubboek van het jaar. Renate Dorrestein was awarded the Annie Romein Prize for her body of work in 1993, which includes The Darkness that Divides Us, and Cees Nooteboom has been picking up awards for nearly half a decade, beginning with the Anne Frank Prize in 1957. Arnon Grunberg, author of Tirza, has picked up all of the Netherlands’ main literary awards, including the Libris Prize, ECI Literatuurprijs, and Constantijn Huygens Prize, whilst Tommy Wieringa (These are the names, Joe Speedboat, Little Caesar) has won the Libris Prize and been shortlisted for IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Gerbrand Bakker has had notable success with his translated fiction, winning both the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for The Twin and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The Detour. However, it is probably Herman Koch, author of The Dinner and Summer House with Swimming Pool, who is the most well-known of the Dutch imports, and his next title, Dear Mr M, due for release in July looks set to continue his success, described as ‘another unsettling and irresistibly readable literary thriller, set in the world of writing and bookselling’. And a final note about promising new releases goes to Saskia Goldschmidt’s The Hormone Factory, which had I heard of it earlier may well have been in contention for my Dutch read. Nevertheless it gets added to my growing list for ATW Take 2 – whenever that may be.
When I first decided to incorporate the Netherlands in this Around the World tour, I struggled to find the right book for me. Nooteboom, Koch and Wieringa are the natural go-to authors, but Koch and Wieringa have both been given significant coverage and none of the Nooteboom novels really grabbed me. I was deliberating between Tessa de Loo’s The Twins, which was more up my street but felt a bit dated, albeit only 15 years old, and Arnon Grunberg’s Tirza, which was certainly more contemporary, published in 2013, but didn’t have the instant draw I would have liked. Then, as I was having a general browse of new releases, I happened upon Marieke Nijkamp’s This Is Where It Ends, a YA novel told over the span of 54 frantic minutes during a school hostage situation, in which a former pupil bearing a gun traps the school community in the auditorium. After a furious search to confirm Nijkamp’s nationality and a sigh of relief on reading the words ‘She lives in the Netherlands’, I had found my Dutch delegate and I was thrilled to have finally come across contemporary translated YA.
Inevitably, Nijkamp’s is an unsettling and harrowing read, one that delves into cultural memories that we’ve all had the pain of being historical witnesses to. It is a big subject to take on for any author and particularly a YA author at that, given the proximate age range and school setting between the focal readers and the victims in the novel, and for some teens especially I can imagine it being a bit too close to home. Indeed, in many ways it is too close to home for any reader, as there’s a very real sense in which this school, these children, could be any school, any children. Opportunity High School is just your average high school, there is nothing about it or its students that pinpoint it as a target. Unfortunately it is just the case that the shooter happens to live in Opportunity and attend this particular school. Told through the various voices of a number of the key characters, but significantly not the shooter himself, nor any of the adults or teachers, the book depicts the way the normal school day descends into a day that will forever change the lives of all those connected with Opportunity High School, and the terror and tragedy that ensues. At its heart are Autumn, sister of the shooter, herself trapped in the auditorium, along with her girlfriend Sylv, Tomas, Sylvia’s brother who wasn’t in the auditorium when the shooter took control but who is inside the school desperate to save his sister, and Claire, a student who was training at the school athletics track when the incident began but whose brother is caught up in the situation. Punctuating each chapter are social media feeds as the outside world begins to get word, tapping into the contemporary way in which our lives are now played out via technology.
Crucially, Nijkamp doesn’t make the narrative about the shooter – in many ways, aside from a few hints as to some of the experiences that may have shaped his world, he remains throughout very much an enigma. The narrative clearly isolates the shooter, showing the impossibility, nay the naivety, of trying to get inside his head, but I did wonder if anything was lost from taking this approach. What is prioritised instead are the victims, their lives, their relationships and their hopes for the future and the poignancy of the futures of these young lives balancing so precariously. Sibling relationships are a feature of the novel too and all of them are movingly depicted. But it is the sudden and categorical loss of life that is so dramatic in this novel. Indeed, Nijkamp punctuates the novel with death, or rather, to be more accurate, murder. She does not try to moderate or mollify – she portrays the brutalities and horrors of the situation, such as it deserves, after all there is no way of sanitising this atrocity – nor does she keep her main characters safe. Again, it is a point that makes for unsettling reading and may prove too much for some, but it is necessary for tackling the subject in all of its barbarity.
It is difficult to criticise a novel about such a harrowing subject, as I’m sure it is difficult to write one. It is naturally a subject matter that is going to provoke reaction, stir emotions, and readers will react differently to what the author does. For me the novel did seem to lack a certain amount of urgency and fear. Focusing on the four main characters somewhat loses sight of the bigger picture of what’s happening as if the camera zooms in on an individual and cuts out the wider image and as such we lose the sense of the general hysteria and destruction. The emotion comes to a head in the finale and this does help to stabilise the novel somewhat, but I felt that whilst the novel excels at portraying the tragedies of Autumn, Sylv, Tomas and Claire, their stories somewhat take away from the lives and deaths of all the others caught up in the tragedy. But it brings me back to the point about this being such a vast and difficult subject to tackle, and inevitably the author having to decide on a strategy and finding a balance. Overall Nijkamp’s is a bold and powerful read about a subject matter largely taboo in fiction but which should not be ignored.
This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp
Sourcebooks 978-1492622468 hbk Jan 2016