Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The Netherlands - Een Hart van Steen - A Gothic tale from Haarlem

I was a bit too excited about the prospect of reading a novel by a well-known Dutch writer and my preliminary research brought me to a recent novel called Een Hart van Steen, or A Heart of Stone, by well-known writer Renate Dorrestein, although this is her first novel to be translated into English.

I feel that we lose out so much by not reading other countries' writers and, it's not that we don't read foreign writers in the English speaking world, but the ones we do read are predictable and, most likely, being read by every second person on the daily commute to work. I wanted to read something that I wouldn't have otherwise read. Entering Dorrestein's world was certainly an eye-opener.

I studied literature and linguistics at university and I have mixed feelings about novels. Spending four years dissecting and analysing text, it almost takes the pleasure away from reading and most of my post-college years, I've felt more comfortable reading history books or books on politics or culture.

A Heart of Stone was a harrowing world to enter. The topics dealt with in the novel were quite dark and disturbing and, if I can come to any conclusions about the cultural difference of this novel, then I would say that the topics Dorrestein deals with, especially the torture of a small child, are things which are fairly taboo in my society and not something I would expect to read about in an English novel.

Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice to say the descriptions in the novel made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and the eerie whining of the sand dunes and cold, wet nights in Haarlem evoked a landscape of pure fear and a darkness I wouldn't otherwise have associated with the Netherlands.

The story was incredibly powerful and I really empathised with the main character, Ellen, and the short straw she'd drawn on life.

The narrative was set back in the 70's and Dorrestein raises some important questions about post-natal depression and how this wasn't properly understood back then. She also raised issues of societal responsibility. When Ellen tells her favourite teacher about the abuse at home, she's told to be more discreet and not to be washing her family's dirty laundry in public. Ellen quite humorously puts this down to the fact that her teacher's subject is 'Ancient Greece', therefore any modern tragedy would seem trivial compared to the endless wars and family vendettas of Greek history.

There has been a lot of controversy in England this year about Baby P and the Haringey Council. Abuse is so often overlooked or trivialised. I guess there is an expectation from the general public that the authorities will somehow unfailingly uncover abuse in families. The reality however is a lot more complicated and although it might be something of a cliche, you really don't know what's going on behind closed doors.

Ellen finds a kind of peace at the end of the novel. The psychological journey she has to go on to get there is as intense as the gloom of her parent's home, the Bureau van Bemmel. Truly a modern Gothic tale, I found it to be very well-written and morbidly engaging.

Image credits

The fascinating image of the heart made up of stones on a beach is by flickruser Coletree - he is from China, loves Hong Kong and wants to travel to Iceland.  Coletree you need to check out my blogpost about Iceland :)  Thanks for sharing this photo with us using the Creative Commons license.
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