A girl is stumbling across a vast expanse of sand in the pouring rain. She does not know who she is, what her name is or where she is going. Then she arrives at a hotel, run by a grey fox and a white rat, who are the same size as her. She decides to stay there and to find out who she is. But all that the following days bring is more puzzles. The staircase to the top floor, where someone plays the piano all day long, is nowhere to be found. And what is the significance of the scraps of writing that blow in over the sand flat? This mysterious fairytale is a pleasure to read in itself. But newcomer Truus Matti also succeeds in ingeniously weaving the fairytale into a realistic story about guilt and mourning.
In this second narrative, a girl who is also without a name looks back at the time before her father’s death. He did a lot of travelling, but had promised to be at home on her eleventh birthday, and to give her a present: a story he had written. He never came, but the present did, through the post. The girl wrote a furious letter to her ‘lousy dad’ to say that she didn’t want a childish story about talking animals if he wasn’t going to bring it himself. She never received an answer to her letter. Her father drowned shortly afterwards.
It soon becomes clear to the reader that the fairytale about the fox and the rat is the birthday present from her father and that he created a part for his daughter to play in it. She is the girl who arrives at the deserted hotel. It is also obvious that the two stories are providing the reader with pieces of the same puzzle. They increasingly display striking similarities and flow ever more smoothly into each other. And yet – and this is the really clever thing about this book – it is not until the final page that everything falls into place.
You could interpret the fairytale as one big metaphor for the process of mourning. As she reads the story, the girl realises that time stopped for her when her father died. She has grown older, and is now almost twelve, but inside she is still that angry, sad younger child. This insight starts the clock moving again. By writing the fairytale, the father has helped his daughter to overcome her grief.
We could do with more storytellers like Truus Matti in Dutch children’s literature. She delivers exactly the right combination of carefully considered literary form and an impressive story that holds the reader’s attention all the way to the end.
By Bas Maliepaard