I Will Return
A mother confides her deepest secrets to her son in exchange for a peaceful death
Adriaan van Dis has explored his family history before but never so unflinchingly as in this memoir. In the final phase of his mother’s life she is at last prepared to talk about living through three wars and the death of her first husband, beheaded in a Japanese internment camp. Adriaan van Dis pieces together her past and his own in a brave and uncompromising book.
The author’s relationship with his mother was always troubled. Critical rather than tender, she refused to open herself up to others and never talked about the past. It was unclear whether this was simply her nature or the fallout from her wartime ordeals and her difficult marriage.
The mother in I Will Return clings to her secrets and threatens to take them to the grave with her, while the author is intent on getting at the truth. The two enter into an almost Faustian pact: he will be allowed to take on the role of journalist and pry into her past if he promises to help her end her life. With her 100th birthday approaching, she feels she has nothing left to live for, though plenty still remains unsaid.
The first part of the memoir takes place after the author’s two sisters have died. His mother, now in a rest home, comes across as distant and heartless, even refusing to talk about her two dead daughters, and dwelling on her own suffering: fleeting impressions of hard times, long years of loneliness and condemnation of her mixed marriage.
The mother is shrewd, controlling and manipulative with her son in the way she gives and withholds information. Van Dis writes beautifully on the subject of remembering and forgetting, words that ring with insight and emotion even when they come from his reluctant mother’s lips. ‘That’s old age,’ she said. ‘Your character doesn’t wear away as you get older, it condenses, the essence rises to the surface. We are all reduced to the stock cube of our own soup.’
I Will Return is an exceptionally courageous book about mothers and sons, about war and coming to terms with life and with death. While the narrator sees death as the end, it is the mother’s firm belief in reincarnation that gives the book its title. In a dreamlike closing sequence, the deceased mother does indeed return.
- Winner of Libris Literature Prize 2015