Hella S. Haasse is renowned for her historical novels. They are intelligent, exciting, and well-documented; they take the reader by surprise and lead one back, compellingly, to another time and place. When she uses contemporary settings for her novels and stories, she generally writes about ordinary people, characters engaged in a profound struggle with personal choices and circumstances.
Het tuinhuis (The Garden House), a collection of the short stories that Haasse has written during her rich and long authorship, proves that she can create the same effects with fewer words. Most remarkable is the way in which Haasse subtly and imperceptibly lures the reader into a new atmospheric setting each time, imparting the characters’ dilemmas, fears, and desires in an instant.
The mood in Haasse’s stories is often threatening, such as in the powerful title story in which a mother and daughter are locked in a subtle and at the same time painful psychological struggle.
Often a tragedy from the past emerges between the lines. This is the case in ‘Perkara’, in which the Dutch present and the Dutch East Indian past are expertly intertwined. The past imposes itself even more forcefully in ‘Het portret’ (The Portrait), in which a family drama is depicted in a single photograph. The picture brings home just how far a genteel family have descended from their origins as well as the fact that their souls are filled with illusions: ‘He who is hindered by that which is missing, complements it with clutter.’ The story ‘Genius loci’ demonstrates yet again Haasse’s ability to bring places to life with powerful, fascinating, and dark descriptions.
The female protagonist senses that somebody is watching her from the woods surrounding her French house. ‘The invisible presence didn’t seem threatening; she felt no fear but rather a vague disquiet. Something was expected of her, but she didn’t know what it was.’ Haasse creates the mood with just a few elegant, razor sharp strokes of her pen.