Buzz debut ‘The Custody’ talks about the Holocaust from the point of view of the accomplices (••••)

Buzz debut ‘The Custody’ talks about the Holocaust from the point of view of the accomplices (••••)

It is not often that a manuscript by a Dutch writer arouses international interest even before it reaches the shops. The storage by Yael van der Wouden (1987) is an exception. The debut novel, originally written in English, is published in eight languages ​​in thirteen countries, after a fierce battle between publishers over publishing rights. The hype creates high expectations, which are met in the first part, but which do not always benefit the book afterwards.

It is 1961 and we follow Isabel, a rigid and suspicious woman who mourns her deceased mother. She is the only one who still lives in the large Overijssel family home, which was already fully furnished when the family moved in during the Hunger Winter. She clings desperately to the past by not allowing any change: every saucer must be clean, the windows cleaned and the butterfly bushes pruned. It is as if a bell jar has been placed over the house, under which time stands still. Fearing that the help will steal something, she keeps lists of all her household belongings, so that she can be sure that everything stays where it belongs.

Unwanted guest

The isolation is broken when Eva appears on the scene, the new girlfriend of Isabel’s brother Louis. Isabel doesn’t like her, with her aggressively bleached bob haircut and poorly made dress, ‘beautiful the way men thought women should be beautiful’, and talking in a high-pitched, nervous voice. But Eva will soon be gone, is Isabel’s hope, which is also motivated by fear, because the house has actually been promised to Louis. As soon as he wants to start a family, he will move in. Isabel ‘belonged to the house […] but the house itself did not belong to her’.

When Louis has to travel for work, Eva comes to stay at the house for weeks – Isabel protests, but there is no discussion about it. Isabel does her best to ignore her guest, but she is extremely annoyed by how Eva handles the dishes, moves her things, and sleeps in her mother’s room. Eva feels caged in a haunted house where nothing is allowed, but without friends or family she has nowhere else to go. It doesn’t take long before a spoon disappears and Isabel never finds it again. It puts relations on edge. From now on, Isabel will never lose sight of Eva.

Van der Wouden (1987) is a talented writer and this is also reflected in the translation by Fannah Palmer and Roos van de Wardt. Detailed observations and actions alternate with the dialogues, and in all of this she manages to convey a lot about the characters. The dialogues are bursting with clipped sentences and substantive jumps, sometimes due to hesitation, sometimes because someone else interrupts or because something happens, and sometimes because someone does not dare to finish his sentence. The silences in Van der Wouden’s prose are just as important as what is said: they increase the tension in a natural way, because the reader often has to guess at what is already known to the characters.

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Marga Minco in 2004.

But when it comes to the structure of the story, Van der Wouden lets her characters make important choices that seem driven by the author’s plot wishes rather than coming from the characters. For example, it is not clear at first why Isabel allows Eva to stay in her house, especially if she does not like her, suspects her of theft and sees her as a threat to her own living situation.

Queer romance

Lust appears to be the explanation. Van der Wouden also succeeds in building tension between Isabel and Eva in the first part. A paragraph that begins with Isabel telling Eva to put her things back in its proper place ends: “She had such a piercing gaze that made Isabel’s heart stumble to a terrifying pace. A moth under a glass bell.’ In the romantic passages, Van der Wouden does not shy away from the sweet, but rather seeks it out. Soon a passionate love blossoms between the two. But it is precisely the sudden change from enemy to lover that is not immediately imaginable from Eva’s perspective.

Because besides a queer romance it offers The storage also a story about the role of the Dutch during and after the Holocaust, in which the house and Eva’s identity play a key role. The state fined deported Jews after the war because of outstanding bills and many Dutch people made off with the belongings and houses of Jewish families during the war. Van der Wouden presents the cold reception of Jews after the war as a major revelation. Without wanting to give away the point of the novel: a character sighs that no one ever knows anything in this country. ‘Nobody knows where they live, who did what, who went where. Everything is one big mystery.’

This revelation will probably make a greater impression abroad, where Anne Frank’s diary is still the only known story about the Shoah in the Netherlands. But the many hints that Van der Wouden drops in the first part do not really make the plot twist a surprise for readers who know a little more about it.

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Seven-year-old Sieg Monday in the recently liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Van der Wouden’s merit is that instead of focusing on the fate of Jewish victims, she turns the camera around and focuses on non-Jewish Dutch people. This reversal allows Van der Wouden to portray how the Dutch were not a passive population who stood by as the Nazis deported the Jews. On the contrary, some played an active role in the expropriation and deportation of the Jews. This critical reexamination of our war past is increasingly supported, including in the new National Holocaust Museum. Both there and in The storage we learn how easily we become responsible for other people’s suffering and convince ourselves that we have done nothing wrong.

The international victory promises that Van der Wouden’s debut is a rare comet that only comes along once in a while. Van der Wouden has often proven that she can write well, in English and Dutch, and it is certainly a strong debut. But groundbreaking? Only for those for whom Dutch history is indeed one big mystery. The debut may have the hype beshritto use an old Dutch-Yiddish word.