2011, 342 p.
I snapped this book straight off the shelf as soon as I saw it because I remembered the author’s Calibre-Prize winning essay that was published in The Australian Book Review about five years ago. I recall where I read the essay: in a cafe in North Melbourne that I walked to from the Public Records Office to stretch my legs after a morning steeped in the archives . It was a powerful read that combined history, memoir and reflection as a middle-aged, Dutch-born, now Australian narrator returned to her childhood home in Walcheren, a flat island sheltered from the sea by a network of dykes off the coast of Netherlands. Her father had been the scion of an old, aristocratic family; her mother a Jewish beauty. She tells of the war and its aftermath that swept away the history of her family with such a flatness of tone that the reader is left to fill in the betrayal and violence that such actions engendered for herself. I found myself sitting there, quite stunned by the strength of such a quiet retelling. You can read the essay here: it’s called An die Nachgeborenen: for those who come after, published in the Australian Book Review in February 2007. I had remembered the essay, and its effect on me for all those years.
But on reading the book, it seemed as if I was reading the essay again, except in a longer form. Here was the child, the old aristocratic family, the Jewish mother, the dykes, the flooding again, but now intertwined with a longer travel narrative and a migrant story as well. It was fuller, but somehow seemed emptier.
It was only when I read an essay that Elisabeth Holdsworth wrote about the writing of the book in ABR in October 2008 that I realized that what I was missing in the book was the writer herself. I hadn’t noticed the switch between first person voice in her original Calibre-prize essay and the third person voice of her novel, and having now read her reflection on her decision to write her memoir as fiction, I’m even less sure of the distinction between them.
I think, actually, that I preferred the first essay. There, the flatness of tone conveyed a dignified restraint, whereas in the book it seemed like an absence and a distance. It’s unusual to read three versions of the same story like this – essay, novel, reflection – and it raises many questions about the choice of genre, the line between memoir and fiction, and the author at work.
My rating: for the book 7/10; for the essays 9/10
Read because: I enjoyed the essay so much
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library