The Cabinet of the Staal Family
Filled with beautiful characteristics and striking details
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This famous quote from Anna Karenina appears on one of the first pages of this novel, already indicating that, in Het kabinet van de familie Staal, as in Yolanda Entius’s previous three novels, not everything in the garden is rosy. But just like all three predecessors, this book never becomes sentimental and the story maintains a great pace.
Fairly chronologically, the novel follows the life of the protagonist Mees, the youngest daughter. The Staal family is held in a stranglehold by Kobe, the father. This man is captured with razor-sharp precision on the first line of the novel with the words: “He was a small man, who thought that he was big, impressive, wise, better.”
Muis, the timid and fearful mother, keeps the children quiet, shouting “Bags out of the hallway!” when Father comes home. Gradually, it becomes clear that she helps to maintain this domestic tyrant’s authority by shielding Kobe from his increasingly angry daughters. She shouts at Mees and tells her she doesn’t know what her father’s capable of. No, Mees doesn’t know, but her imagination is starting to work overtime. One disturbing thought that keeps coming back is the question of what happened to their brother, who died as a baby. Did Father kill him in one of his outbursts?
The three daughters all eventually drift away from their parents. The eldest, Do, marries young and, of the three girls, she maintains the family dynamic for longest. The second daughter, Ilse, goes insane and ends up in an institution. Number three, the protagonist Mees, makes the most successful escape by leaving home at a young age to become an artist.
The definitive break between the daughters and their parents comes when their sexual abuse by a neighbour is dismissed with such sentiments as “You should have said something at the time,” and “Well, you must have done something to encourage him.” Ultimately, the parents are left behind on their own. They both die, but the daughters don’t hear about their deaths until over a year later.
The novel describes very precisely how families can be a place of abuse and mistreatment. However, the book is not a sentimental tearjerker, and this is largely the result of the pace of the story and Mees’s toughness as a character. Finally, she, and the reader along with her, is able to escape and leave this claustrophobic family behind.
The author skilfully paints a picture of the 1970s, the era when the daughters grow up, with its increasing prosperity and the first car journeys to southern Europe. Entius has the ability to inject a certain wry humour into some of her scenes. When the whole family is heading off on the long trip to Italy, they reach the outskirts of town, only to find that the car insurance documents are missing. Kobe blames the mother, furiously drives to a car park, storms out of the car and goes for a pee. While he’s gone, the others find the insurance documents in the inside pocket of his jacket.