Through eighty tightly-orchestrated scenes, we follow the life of a woman who, at the end of the book – when we have arrived in the present – is about forty-five and sits alone outside a café overlooking the beach near The Hague. Vera Melchers-Dornseiffer is a former Dutch teacher, a wife and a mother. Her whole life she has considered her aloofness to be the secret of her attractiveness.
This makes her both beautiful and slightly tragic, but in a different way to the female characters of the great nineteenth-century writers, who were first elevated by language and then succumbed to their fate as tragic heroines. Vera is a normal woman who has always had the capacity to become something exceptional, but has accomplished and suffered too little to succeed as a dramatic figure.
In other words, Jan Siebelink does not explicitly create literature and depict a dream woman. His skill lies in making us think we are reading a real life, not a book. The naturalistic view that disaster runs in families and the abstracter nineteenth-century idea of fate still hover above the Hague residence, but this time no finely sketched young damsels in muslin are tripping along under the dark clouds. Nor can you detect Vera Melchers’s presence from a mile away because of her exquisite scents.
The novel is about the deception known as kinship. When it comes down to it every family has its rifts and breaks. Vera has a falling out with her parents, is permanently at odds with her sister and experiences a cooling in her marriage. When her daughter Heleen leaves for Amsterdam she suddenly realizes: ‘You really knew nothing about your children.’ On the other hand, she is beautiful, can sing, has a flirt with a painter and is valued as a teacher. Her inaccessibility prevents her from seizing life… And the writer stands by and watches. What right does he have to reach her where others cannot?
Only a controlled and powerful writer could succeed in conveying this suggestion with such force.