Translated from Dutch by Hester Velmans
Some books know how to intrigue even before a word is read. This is one such. Firstly the title. What is this darkness? Then the structure, fully discernible from the contents page. 3 sections, with chapters beginning with A is for …, B is for …., all the way through Z. Very apt because Lucy, the traumatised child at the centre of this novel is dyslexic and memory aids for the alphabet are crucial.
The first section covers Lucy’s time at primary school in Holland. Idyllic? I think not. It begins like this.
We must at some point have made up our minds never to exchange another word with her, because, as if by prearrangement, there was always a deathly silence the moment she came into view. …
When had it all started? It must have been the year we learned to read in Miss Joyce’s class.
This is written when the kids are now eleven, going on 12. Slowly it is revealed that Lucy has been not only shunned, but physically bullied since she was 6. 5 going on 6 years! What on earth were the adults playing at? Lucy’s parents, her teachers? It’s hard to tell because of the communal “we” narrator. The kids have ganged up on Lucy, and might is always right. The world of adults is always seen through this filter, distorted through the limited experience and intense imagination of childhood. It’s a very convincing and scary worldview, but it is a mirage, which shows how easily facts can be twisted, created even. What is beyond dispute, however, is that when Lucy was six, her mother was jailed for the murder of the father of one of Lucy’s classmates. Lucy, herself, is being cared for by the two men who live with Lucy’s mother. Are they lodgers, lovers? It’s not clear. In any case, Lucy and her mother see them as surrogate fathers.
That they do not move away from the area is unfathomable to me, and the repercussions of that for Lucy are beyond doubt. Yet, they do not (or choose not) to see them. Accepting all of Lucy’s excuses for her isolation, the cuts, scratches and bruises. That Lucy doesn’t report the abuse to her teachers becomes understandable, when she explains in the second section (which is when the narrative switches from that anonymous 1st person plural, into a 1st person singular) that she feels as though she deserves it. It appears her mother has taken the blame for the murder, believing Lucy to have been responsible. Lucy obviously feels this too, even though she has suppressed the memories of the distressing event in question.
This secret – if you can call it that – is the darkness that serves to divide mother and child, not only physically, but emotionally. When Lucy’s mother is released, and decides that the family will makes a fresh start on, of all places, the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, she finds that she wants to discuss what happened on that night. She must if she is to overcome her resentment, but all discussion is shut down by the uncles. Lucy’s mother decides to leave, this time willingly.
After a period of acclimatisation to the Scottish climate (particularly extreme on the Isle of Lewis), Lucy overcomes her own resentment at being dragged to the edge of nowhere, and is accepted by the local scalliwags. She becomes one of the gang. The past seems to have been left behind … until the Dutch tourists arrive and with them a couple of former classmates …. but then an opportunity arises for Lucy to pay back former wrongs.
The past is never far away, but Lucy manages to dodge it until she is eighteen and moves back to Amsterdam to attend college. Suddenly she is alone, with no uncles to cushion her. Sudden sightings of a former classmate and her mother precipitate a crisis, and a recognition that she must open her mind and confront the truth of that night …. The key question, of course, being, does she discovers what the reader expects?
Speaking for myself, she does not, though I wasn’t entirely surprised. The mirage of that first section, and indeed what proves to be the mirage of Lucy’s entire existence disappeared in an instant, calling into question all my assumptions. I found it a very satisfying end to a novel that was skilfully told from the first page to the last. I was horrified, relieved, amused (particularly at Lucy’s dismay with the Scottish climate) and distressed by turns, but always emotionally engaged. 350 pages whizzed by.
Highly recommended. That I’m now on the look out for Dorrestein’s previous novels is a given.