TagWorld Editions

You Have Me to Love – Jaap Robben: a review for #BoekenweekUK

Welcome to the final stop on World Editions’ blog tour for Boekenweek, celebrating Dutch literature. Today I’m reviewing You Have Me to Love by Jaap Robben (translated by David Doherty). Robben is a poet, playwright and children’s author; Birk (to use the title of the Dutch version) is his first novel for adults. It won the 2014 Dutch Booksellers Away and the Dioraphte Prize. Having read the book, it’s not hard to see why.

Our narrator is young Mikael Hammermann, who lives with his parents, Dora and Birk, on an island somewhere between Scotland and Norway. There are only three houses on the island, and one of those is empty. Groceries arrive by boat every two weeks; Mikael is home-schooled, at least enough to do well in the tests that are sent to him periodically (and which he is allowed to complete in pencil, so they can be corrected before returning). Robben never places the island in a true geographical context, so throughout there’s a sense of dislocation which really comes into its own as the novel progresses.

The Hammermanns’ world is upended when, one day, Birk vanishes into the sea. The search for him yields nothing, though Mikael begins to see a tiny version of his father about the house – that is, until he’s forced to confront and reveal the full circumstances of Birk’s disappearance.

The rest of the novel chronicles life without Birk for mother and son. Dora’s attitude switches from blaming Mikael to something that he can’t quite read: for example, at one point Mikael’s mother announces abruptly that they’re going to swap bedrooms, ostensibly because he’s growing up and needs the bigger bed – but it still seems a strange thing to him. For his part, Mikael starts to help out the Hammermanns’ neighbour, Karl, with his fishing boat; though Dora is not keen, perhaps from a sense of possessiveness (for whom, is an open question). Mikael also attempts secretly to raise a gull chick in the island’s empty house, which is perhaps his way of proving himself to himself.

Jaap Robben

You Have Me to Love has a number of emotional turns that I wasn’t expecting – it’s really quite affecting. If you’d like a taste of the writing, Anne posted an extract from Doherty’s translation at Random Things Through My Letterbox yesterday. There’s also an animated short based on the book, which you can see here.

Book details

You Have Me to Love (2014) by Jaap Robben, tr. David Doherty (2016), World Editions, 256 pages, paperback (review copy).

World Editions Dutch literature blog tour for Boekenweek 

Boekenweek is an annual celebration of Dutch literature which has been held in the Netherlands since 1932. To mark Boekenweek this year, the publisher World Editions has organised a blog tour for three Dutch authors: Renate Dorrestein, Esther Gerritsen, and Jaap Robben. I’ll be taking part on 15 March, with a review of Jaap Robben’s novel You Have Me to Love. However, the tour starts today, with a profile of Esther Gerritsen over at Books By Women. You can see the other stops on the blog tour in the poster below (click the image to enlarge).

Traces of Sandalwood by Asha Miró & Anna Soler-Pont

SandalwoodAfter Monday’s detour to Wales, it’s back to Spanish Lit Month with a story of displacement and searching, by Asha Miró (who was herself born in India and adopted by a Spanish couple at the age of seven) and. We meet three children whose worlds are upended in the 1970s: in Addis Ababa, Solomon’s father is a cook in the emperor’s palace, until the emperor is deposed by the military; several years later, Solomon is one of a number of Ethopian children awarded scholarships to Cuba. In India, an orphan named Muna is sent from her home village of Kolpewadi to work in a Bombay carpet factory; eventually she ends up working for a family, which is where she learns to read and write. There is also Muna’s sister, Sita, who was sent to an orphanage in Bombay at age three, and has no memory of the older girl; Sita wishes for parents of her own, and soon finds herself on a plane, heading for her new life in Barcelona.

Something that really comes across in Traces of Sandalwood is the sense of dislocation and upheaval that each of the three protagonists experiences. For example, Solomon’s voyage to Cuba:

The first days seemed very long. On deck, the boys and girls sat on the floor and cried inconsolably. Many of them hadn’t shed a tear since they had said goodbye to their families to go to Tatek, but now the sensation of being on that imposing ship with its smoking chimney, a kind of floating building that was moving away from solid ground toward a totally unknown world, finally overcame them. Now there was no-one shouting at them and telling them that men don’t cry. It seemed as if, suddenly, all of the adults had disappeared and left them alone, adrift in the middle of the water.

(Translation by Charlotte Coombe.)

But perhaps the most striking thing about this novel is its structure: after we leave the children behind, the narrative jumps forward 25 years, and we have to acquaint ourselves with the characters all over again. Muna, for example, is now an international movie star, and keen to track down her sister after all this time. As adults, the three protagonists’ lives come together as they could never have imagined.

By leaving that gap between past and present, Miró and Soler-Pont make the experience of reading Traces of Sandalwood reflect their characters’ lives: the disorientation of being in an unfamiliar place or situation; a heightened sense of life as a series of distinct (albeit linked) episodes. We see the children’s lives cast up into the air when we meet them; by the time we leave them as adults, we have a sense that maybe they have landed well.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Traces of Sandalwood by Asha Miró & Anna Soler-Pont (2007), tr. Charlotte Coombe (2016), World Editions paperback

 

The Dyslexic Hearts Club by Hanneke Hendrix

DyslexicHeartsThis is the first novel to appear in English by Dutch writer Hanneke Hendrix (the translation is by David Doherty). It has a delightfully dark streak of humour that put me in mind of Alina Bronsky’s work – always a good thing as far as I’m concerned.

Our narrator, Anna van Veen, wakes up in hospital with burns and a collapsed lung. She is sharing a room with two other burn patients; this isn’t necessarily the best situation for Anna, because she likes her own company:

When I stayed at home, people thought it reflected on them, that I meant something by it, that there was something wrong with them. You might think you’re playing the lead, the star of your own show, but when it comes right down to it you’re mostly just a bit player in other people’s lives. That’s how I see it, in any case.

She’s also not the best reader of people (in her husband’s words, she has a ‘dyslexic heart’). Still, here she is, with a couple of other misfits: a grouchy old woman named Vandersteen; and a younger woman who’s still too ill to speak (it turns out later that these two are named Anna as well). Something’s not quite right, though: the women’s room is guarded by a police officer; and the nurses who attend them seem less sympathetic to their situation than might be expected.

The events that led the trio to their hospital room are only gradually revealed – though things ramp up in the second half, when the women go on the run, and Anna goes from a ‘bit player’ to the uneasy co-star of her own road movie. I’m being cagey about the details because so much of the enjoyment of The Dyslexic Hearts Club comes from the uncertainty of wondering where it’s going to go. But I will say that it was worth the journey, and I’ll be looking out for more of Hendrix’s work in the future.

Elsewhere

  • A review of The Dyslexic Hearts Club at Poppy Peacock Pens.
  • An article by Hendrix about the novel at European Literature Network.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Dyslexic Hearts Club (2014) by Hanneke Hendrix, tr. David Doherty (2016), World Editions paperback

© 2019 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: