That Day By The Sea
A magnificent tale
Peter van Gestel’s That Day By The Sea is lively and amusing, and yet it is the dismal story of a dysfunctional family, a story prompted by death. The narrator is Sibille (‘Sip’), who talks straight from the heart about her older brother Cham. It is Cham who brings excitement into her world. He takes an old magician’s top hat and pesters unsuspecting customers on a café terrace, he drinks beer even though he is only thirteen, and stays away for nights on end.
Sibille and Cham live in a pretty village on the Dutch coast. Their father is an artist, distant towards his offspring, who insists on peace and quiet. His studio is in the garden; here he paints portrait miniatures, all with the same face. Their mother spends most of her time running round after their father, dusting and polishing the house, hushing the children.
But Cham will not hush. He bends over backwards to be noticed, by the world, by his father. Even his little sister Sibille finds his efforts depressing, but she adores him just the same. She watches him breathlessly, wishing that she could become ‘an oddball’ like him.
However, she has little grasp of her brother’s world or that of her father, they barely overlap with her young girls’ world. Sip sees and hears a great deal in this oppressive household, but doesn’t understand everything by any means. Because she is the narrator, the mystery of Cham remains intact. Sip surmises and the reader cannot help but surmise along with her. Yet Peter van Gestel deftly weaves humour and light into this tale. Thanks to Sip’s vital way of looking at things, That Day By The Sea isn’t too heavy. It is a book which goes on for ever, which stays with you, a magnificent tale from a great author.
By Judith Eiselin