The Last Guests
Realism, suspense and sinister humour
Mensje van Keulen manages to build an almost incessant tension into her writing. The reader has the constant feeling that something is about to happen: a crime, a murder, or some other calamity. There’s only one remedy: to keep on reading. In her most recent novel, De laatste gasten (The Last Guests), the main character, Florrie, is raised by her aunt Lena, a hairdresser of easy virtue, adept at backhanders.
Lena doesn’t like Florrie, the words ‘cunt bitch’ are constantly on her lips when she sees her. When her aunt succumbs to a cerebral hemorrhage, Florrie feels no pity. She swallows back her rising euphoria though. ‘I had figured out just as quickly that I shouldn’t expect too much of “now everything will be different.?’ However, when she meets Alice Müller a new world seems to open up to her.
Alice offers her room and board in d’Meihof, an artsy villa along the Amstel, the river that ends in Amsterdam. The genteel and artistic residents of d’Meihof represent a completely different social class than the former boxers and con artists of Florrie’s past. That past moves to the background, although there is always a chance that Rudie Hus, with his cauliflower ear, will come to claim from Florrie what’s rightfully his.
The artistic group’s dinner conversations form a brilliant and humorous part of the novel. Naturally the painters, historians, and philosophers turn out to be no better, morally, than the hairdressers and boxers.
When the smug painter Fagel, who introduces himself as a cannibal, badmouths art historian Emile Waterman, the blue-blooded Mrs Stalpert believes him immediately. ‘He wouldn’t be the first Jew to lie.’ Then a dog turns up, badly abused. Civilization is apparently only skin deep.
The name Roald Dahl often shows up in reviews of Van Keulen’s writing, a logical association, considering the mixture of realism, suspense, and sinister humour. In reading this novel, too, the comparison is appropriate, for example in the scene where Florrie wraps Lena’s ashes up into two colourful little presents to be offered to a customer and an associate of her detested aunt.