Back to Bickers Island
A moving search for a lost mother with a lesbian double life
In the ’60s and ’70s, Bickers Island, behind Amsterdam’s Central Station, was a run-down working-class neighbourhood. For Philip Snijder it’s a mythical, claustrophobic island, which he has described with humour and melancholy in all his novels to date, starting with his successful 2007 debut, Zondagsgeld (Sunday Money).
A constant topic in his work is the battle to escape his surroundings. The narrator of Back to Bickers Island is a sixteen-year-old boy who spends a lot of time riding around the city on his moped. His life is aimless and boring; he smokes a joint from time to time and on one occasion he visits an aging prostitute. Then, one Sunday afternoon he comes home to find his mother has disappeared: no one knows where she is.
Philip and his mother aren’t very close. Apart from her duties as a – rather joyless – housewife, she spends a lot of time in her family home with her brothers and sisters, who haven’t strayed far from where they were born. When he sees the despair in his father’s eyes, he decides to go looking for her. He is given a phone number where he is told he’ll be able to reach her. His desire to find his mother is contrasted with flashbacks about his childhood up to that point. The only times he experienced his mother’s love was right before bedtime, when she would crawl into bed with him and sing sad, sentimental folk ballads from the classic repertoire of Amsterdam’s Bickers Island.
Snijder masterfully builds suspense. Philip’s mother has told him he’s the only person who is allowed to visit her. And all the way on the other side of town, in ritzy Watergraafsmeer, she’s waiting for him with a woman who clearly comes from a very different background and is very clearly her romantic partner. On Bickers Island, that sort of thing would have been impossible – and it shows that both mother and son had the desire to escape the place where they were at home.