Ruthlessly plays on the fears of every parent
A slate-grey sky full of clouds, the tension of a sailing trip with an uncertain outcome, and every parent’s fear of losing a child: these are the ingredients of this incredibly gripping story. Op zee (At Sea) is a book that does not let go. The story is about Donald, a middle-aged man who has reached a dead end at work. Heijmans presents a perfect sketch of modern office life with its sales figures, mileage allowances, assessment procedures and pointless discussions with clients.
Donald heads off on a solo three-month sailing trip across the Atlantic and the North Sea and hopes to come back as a better husband for his wife Hagar. They have agreed that their seven-year-old daughter Maria will join him for the final stage of his journey, the 200 miles from Tyborøn to Harlingen. Having made it around England and the Kattegat, Donald finds the last 200 miles not that difficult. The weather reports are good, yet things still become tense. Almost home, with the harbour in sight, disaster strikes: he can’t find Maria. Hours of desperation follow, but Donald gets up to strange antics: climbing up the mast, rowing off in his dinghy. While the question remains: has he really lost Maria?
Ultimately, this short novel is about fatherhood. Donald constantly makes comparisons with motherhood: ‘Mothers have a head start and fathers can never catch up.’ And: ‘Fathers have to prove themselves.’ But this father is hopelessly failing, on a lonely adventure with his boat and everything going disastrously wrong.
The unreliable narrator provides many small clues to indicate that something is wrong with him. His name, for example, is a reference to Donald Crowhurst, whom Heijmans quotes. He was a solo sailor who died in 1969 during a round-the-world yacht race. He attempted to win by reporting false positions, but his boat was found abandoned on the Atlantic, with confused notes and logbooks. Sentences such as, ‘Reality could just be a dream as far as I’m concerned. And the other way round’ certainly set you thinking. In the final pages, when the perspective switches to Hagar, everything becomes clear. But it is not until the very last page – when a badly damaged boat sails into the harbour – that the disillusion is complete.