A pitch-black filmic comedy about a destructive mother-daughter relationship
Esther Gerritsen excels at writing fast, humorous dialogue, which she uses to capture the lack of understanding between people, the ways they deliberately talk at cross purposes so as to edge around each other’s problems. Thirst is a harrowing story about the impossibility of loving and truly making contact with others, written so drily and pointedly that you regularly laugh out loud as you read.
At the start of the novel, Elisabeth and her adult daughter Coco happen upon each other in the city, on opposite sides of the street. The accidental nature of their meeting is indicative of their estrangement. Elisabeth divorced Coco’s father long ago, and contact with her daughter has been scant ever since. She takes the opportunity to share some bad news; she has terminal cancer and not long to live.
It is a message her daughter receives with a mixture of disbelief and indifference. They part rather uneasily (‘We must ring each other. We’ll ring. Right? Shall we ring?’). The next moment, the mother’s bicycle wheel gets caught in the tram rails before she wobbles off to the hairdresser’s, with whom she has the same short conversations every time, again about her illness.
We follow the lives of mother and daughter by turns. Both are conscious of futility and mortality, and they do not become close even after Coco decides to move in with her mother. Nowhere do we read in so many words that they are unhappy, but it is clear from everything they experience. Coco’s relationship with her egotistical lover, the chatter at the hairdresser’s, a man who sings John Denver lyrics phonetically and an awkward meal at a Chinese restaurant with Coco’s stepmother – all are shrouded in a permanent haze of melancholy and alienation.
Thirst is an animatedly written, tragicomic novel in which the author is not afraid of putting her finger on the most painful places, whether they have to do with alcoholism, obesity or loveless sex. Elisabeth finds it increasingly hard to lie to her daughter to keep up appearances, and her daughter reconciles herself to her fate: ‘Sometimes you start doing something even when you know it will never be enough.’