Esther Gerritsen is a celebrated Dutch author and playwright. She’s also building a reputation as a screenwriter, with scripts including the 2019 film Instinct and the new TV series Red Light. Michele Hutchison’s translation of Gerritsen’s novel Craving was also one of the first titles published by World Editions (along with Gerritsen’s equally unsettling novel Roxy), and as an introduction to this author’s work and a statement of intent by its publisher, Craving is quite something.
We meet Elisabeth as she runs into her daughter Coco, whom she hasn’t seen for some time. Elisabeth has always found it difficult to talk to Coco, but now she feels compelled to tell her daughter that she is dying from cancer. We then switch to Coco’s viewpoint, and it seems her main reaction to the news is that she’s looking forward to being able to tell her partner:
‘things like that excite him. It’ll keep him occupied for a while. She won’t die that fast. Perhaps while that happens, they’ll be able to salvage something.’
It appears clear where Coco’s priorities lie.
Craving is a chronicle of the relationship between mother and daughter and, as the book’s opening demonstrates, it’s a fraught relationship. As a young child, Coco was destructive around the house, and as Elisabeth didn’t know how to deal with her she would end up locking Coco in her room. As time went on, Elisabeth struggled to relate to her daughter emotionally. In her turn, Coco had her own struggles with addiction. Now, faced with the news of her mother’s cancer, Coco decides to move in with Elisabeth to care for her – and the old frictions re-emerge.
Something that’s striking about Craving is its obliqueness: the reader has to piece together a good deal of the subtext, and it is in this area where Hutchison’s translation really shines. The dialogue feels naturalistic: conversations proceed haltingly or with characters talking past each other. Some of this may seem inconsequential, but the dialogue carries emotional weight, especially as Elisabeth’s condition starts to take its toll. For example, here she finds her ex-husband waiting for her at home:
‘[…] what are you doing here?’
‘Coco made a roster – you remember, don’t you?’
‘It’s still the same roster.’
‘But you’re here again.’
‘Does that bother you?’
‘I like it.’
There’s so much beneath the surface of this exchange: a complex personal history and the present-day impact of illness. Yet Gerritsen’s prose – in Hutchison’s translation – carries it so lightly.
To read Craving is to be taken through the changing emotional lives of two compelling characters. It’s an affecting and challenging journey, and Gerritsen is an assured guide.
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
Written by Esther Gerritsen
Translated by Michele Hutchison
Published by World Editions (2015)
Buy this title through the European Literature Network’s The Dutch Riveter bookshop.org page.
David Hebblethwaite is a book blogger and reviewer. He has written about translated fiction for Shiny New Books, Strange Horizons, Words Without Borders, and We Love This Book. He blogs at David’s Book World.
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