It’s the dead of night, the dead of winter. Unable to sleep, a young widow bakes a cake while her lover sleeps upstairs, and finds her thoughts returning to her late husband. Just fourteen months into a seemingly cloudless marriage, he went into their greenhouse one evening and shot himself. Why did he take his own life? In a voice by turns mournful and matter-of-fact, the narrator recalls their courtship, their brief life together and her increasingly obsessive attempts to make sense of his absence.
In this slim volume, Margriet de Moor fashions a taut, finely wrought story that crackles with tension, shifting abruptly between the domestic and the macabre. She has a poet’s knack for sticking the landing, setting traps that lure readers into the next sentence, the next chapter, only to find the ground giving way beneath them. Early on, the protagonist casually mentions her husband’s height ‘which – as I came to learn – was six feet four and half’. In the next chapter we find out she learned this upon seeing his coffin.
Though the story is set in the seventies and eighties, it sometimes feels like it belongs to an earlier time, or outside of time altogether. More than once I was reminded of Virginia Woolf. Lucia, the narrator’s sister-in-law wouldn’t be out of place in To the Lighthouse: ‘She smoked cigarillos … strode around in her riding breeches and an olive-brown Shetland wool sweater.’ But de Moor also shares Woolf’s profound understanding of interiority, the complex mix of emotions, memories and urges that make up her character’s consciousness.
David Doherty’s English rendition of de Moor’s prose is nothing short of stunning. There is – at the risk of sounding a bit bonkers – an almost synaesthetic pleasure in reading phrases like ‘boyhood hideaway’ (those y’s, those h’s, the mirroring b’s and d’s), ‘the calm scrape of skates’, ‘a woman with a tangle of damp curls and a knot of anger in her belly’. There’s an inevitability about the translation – every sentence so perfectly balanced it’s hard to imagine any other possibility – that’s the hallmark of there being not just one but two great artists at work. To de Moor’s rich symbolism and poignant objective correlatives, Doherty adds his own echoes and reverberations. Consider this deft repetition of the word ‘passing,’ which – in addition to evoking death – suggests someone pacing back and forth, back and forth:
‘Walking the floor of the darkened living room calms me … I sleepwalk over the bands of oak, which I would swear have grown warmer with the passing of the years and the friction of my footsteps. And there is no doubt that the effect I achieve bears more than a passing resemblance to the workings of dreams. The sense of melting into things hidden or shoved aside.’
The result is a book that is utterly captivating, brilliantly alive in every line – a quick and piercing read that will stay with you for a long time to come.
Reviewed by Emma Rault
Written by Margriet de Moor
Translated by David Doherty
Published by New Vessel Press (2019)
Buy this title through the European Literature Network’s The Dutch Riveter bookshop.org page.
Emma Rault is a writer and a literary translator from Dutch and German. Her translation of Nina Polak’s short story collection, The Dandy, appeared with Strangers Press in 2020. Her work appeared in the LA Review of Books, Literary Hub and Asymptote, among others.