Peter van Gestel
A marvellously written book on growing up and friendship
Ten-year old Thomas Vrij suffers from a great sadness. He hides it from others; otherwise they would just feel concerned about him. And he doesn’t want that, quite the opposite. So he never complains about anything. Not about his cold knees covered in scabs, his hunger, or being bullied at school, nor the fact that his mother died from typhoid just after liberation and that his father has never got over it. He would rather make up stories about dogs stuck fast, frozen in the ice, using big words such as ‘wretched’ and ‘marvellous’. His classmate, Piet de Zwaan, who is called Piem at home, is the prototype of a professor who knows everything but gives nothing away. Nevertheless, Thomas discovers that Zwaan was in hiding during the war in a room all by himself, somewhere in Deventer, and that his parents were taken away by the Germans.
The razor-sharp dialogue shows Van Gestel’s great empathy with the soul of a child. The narrative style, seen throughout the book from the viewpoint of Thomas, (whom everyone insists on calling Tommie, much to his disgust), is effective and witty. Thomas refuses to allow anything to get him down; his classmates, the cold, things he doesn’t understand. And there are a great many things he doesn’t understand, because the whole world is just one big conspiracy. He comes to the conclusion that ‘everyone has agreed not to tell me anything’ and you can ‘spend your whole damned life’ finding out for yourself. This is the language of someone who wants to get ahead and dares to be ‘infatuated’ with Liesje Onderwater, who has little blond hairs on her snow-white legs, or with thirteen-year old Bet who is always rather curt, but unbelievably pretty.
During a hot summer, Thomas looks back at the coldest and longest winter ever. The expressive detail and the constant changes in time and place create a three-dimensional map of post-war Amsterdam which include the smells and colours of a crowded classroom, the living room with its coal fire, the drab, grey soap flakes in the zinc bath of lukewarm water, the hard, cold snow on the canals, the slippery ice of the Amstel river, the pink satin petticoats of the girls from the dressmaker’s and the double bed in which Tommie and Zwaan sleep. But the underlying emotions are timeless; children like Thomas are still bullied because they are different and both children and adults alike still have to bear their solitary grief, because it is so difficult to share your emotions. This tale of a child who is physically and emotionally alone deserves a place amongst the great classic stories.
by Joke Linders