‘This is not our life. This is not even our house. Whenever I wake up, I’m there again, it’s then again – it’s still back then.’ It’s intriguing and rather melancholy – and it’s how the touching story of Julia begins, a thirteen-year-old who longs for the past, when her parents were still part of her life.
Julia is the protagonist of Martha Heesen, a writer who, after nineteen years and fourteen children’s books, has taken a new path: Bajaar is most definitely a novel for young adults, set in the past and with an entirely female cast, which is particularly unusual for a writer who until recently specialised in writing books about headstrong boys of about eleven years old – and received a great deal of praise for her work.
However, Julia is no less unforgettable that Heesen’s previous protagonists. Quite the opposite, in fact. Using few words and measured sentences, Heesen skilfully provides insight into the innermost feelings of a girl growing up in 1949 who passes her days with her five younger sisters and Momo, her Belgian grandmother, living in isolation and poverty somewhere in the Brabant countryside. Her life is all about waiting and hoping, against her own better judgement, for news of her father, who has been missing since the final days of WWII.
Julia, together with Momo, is the heart of this small, serene story, which – in keeping with the subject matter – progresses as a penetrating adagio. Silently, they share the tragedy of the past, in which Momo is gradually losing herself, but which Bajaar the stray horse is helping Julia to escape from.
For a long time, the reader remains in the dark about what happened during the war. Why was Julia’s father taken by the Germans? When did her mother die? Why were they evacuated to Brabant?
Julia’s memories, the vivid stories that she tells her sisters and Momo’s correspondence with the Red Cross missing persons department gradually unfold to reveal her family history, which has been shaken by two wars.
Heesen does not tell us everything, but that is the true strength of Bajaar: the strong, evocative images and the rich, sensory descriptions say more than enough.