An enthralling novel about emigration and uprooting
In the little Canadian town of Saint Thomas there is a statue of the elephant Jumbo, star of a travelling circus, which saved the little elephant Tom Thumb from an oncoming train, so the story goes. Jumbo paid with his life, they say. A nice story, but only a myth. It symbolises the relationships within the Verkest family in the novel Brandlucht (Burning Smell), the surprising and moving tale of a family forced to live far from its native ground, its own language and history, in a place that will never feel like home.
The father, Gaston, is one of the many Belgians who moved to Canada after World War II to build a new life. There, he meets the Dutchwoman Mina and they have a daughter, Elly. To the neighbours they seem like a happy family, in which the child is mollycoddled.
For a long time, Elly trusts in her father, who is a fanatic pigeon fancier and likes to call her ‘buttercup’. The pendant he gave her, a golden dove, is always around her neck. In her eyes, it is Mother who is the nasty one, the one ruining the marriage and spoiling things for everyone. Until suddenly Gaston goes away and stays away. He’s gone back to Flanders.
As an adult, Elly still misses him. She seeks out her father in Belgium, where she is confronted with the truth. During the years he was in Canada, it turns out, he was still half-living in the country where he was born, where he even already had a family. Elly is bent on revenge and develops the habit of hurting herself, cutting herself to feel she is alive. ‘You know, most of the time I feel I’m not at home anywhere. Not even in my own body’.
Only the third generation of Verkests, Elly’s daughter Linda, is fortunate enough to feel at home in the new country. Linda no longer feels any connection with the Flemings in the town who ‘wallow in nostalgia and indulge in village gossip, pigeon-racing and cycling. And swilling beer’. But Mina and Elly do not live to see that. The madness that always lurked around the corner in her father takes hold of Elly. To the point where she starts a fatal fire. In a dramatic turn of events, Elly and Mina lose their lives, which is where Linda begins hers.
With sensitivity, a sense of humour and a great feel for language Erik Vlaminck shows the effect the uprooting of a family can have on a young girl’s mind. It is the story of many emigrants all over the world, of ravaging homesickness, of the old world and the new country. With virtuoso skill, Vlaminck interweaves the voices of Elly, Linda, Mina and Gaston, each painted with a different palette. It produces an intense, highly-colourful portrait of a broken family.