A wealth of references and connotations
Lily is stylistically different from Paul Claes’s better known historical novels. The narrative is imbued with the stuffiness of 1950’s Flanders, with its rigid sexual and family moral codes. Lily, growing up in Flanders during the fifties and sixties, timid and self-effacing, is envious of her two elder sisters and a cousin Alice for being adventurous and outgoing. She turns to Alice for moral support, and Alice cautiously introduces her to the world of adolescence.
Then everything goes terribly wrong. Lily causes an accident in which her father is killed and she herself is maimed. Her arranged marriage also proves to be a mistake. Meanwhile Alice is busy sorting out her own tangled love life, following a trip to Austria - regarded at the time as a suitable holiday for a young lady - and her marriage to an Austrian guide. She entrusts the care of her young daughter to Lily, a move which also has dramatic consequences.
The story is simply told, coolly, almost detached, without intrusive reflection or comment. The description of contemporary mores brings the period vividly to life and in laying bare the mentality of the day, Claes tacitly criticizes both the prevailing moral views on personality development and the plight of young girls weighed down by the burden of Christian morality.
A wealth of literary references and cultural connotations underlies the apparent simplicity of the book. Claes addresses the theme of androgyny, as he did in The Chameleon, and the attentive reader will also discover references to mythology, fairy tales and Christian culture.
Shy little Lily, yearning to be emancipated, identifies with Lilith, Adam’s first wife who refused to submit to him.