Fascinating epic of fairground life
In Suikerspin (Candy Floss), the impressive new novel by Erik Vlaminck, Jean-Baptist Van Hooylandt travels from fair to fair in the early twentieth century with his collection of live human curiosities. His most astonishing act is a ‘derodyme’, female Siamese twins, the refined Joséphine and the apathetic Anastasia. Fortunately, Anna, the owner of another fairground attraction, concerned about the twins, is often around to look after them. Even so, they die in dramatic circumstances in 1912. Anna then mothers Jean-Baptist’s son Albert.
Albert’s son Arthur, embittered and marginalised, sees the income from a roundabout which he inherited from his father, vanish as he attempts by foul means to keep up with fairground developments. He is a dogged reactionary, a failed opportunist and a hypocritical misogynist, watching the world go to ruin. Suddenly a writer appears on the scene, looking for information on Arthur’s grandfather Jean-Baptist Van Hooylandt and on the circumstances surrounding the death of the Siamese twins. In a surprising dénouement, the writer discovers that Arthur is not Anna’s grandson, as everyone has always assumed, but the twins’.
This fascinating family epic of fairground life is filled with variety partly because much of what happens is told by Arthur, the grandson, in his particular comic idiom. Other characters in the novel tell different or incomplete, misleading versions of the same stories, thereby consistently wrong-footing the reader. And Vlaminck is able to present his own writing ironically through Arthur’s pessimistic outlook.
Vlaminck mixes fragments of past and present, the colour of fairground life, with archive material and fiction, reconstructing these in a sophisticated novel, which is riveting to read. The reader reconstitutes the family’s history as the novel progresses, and a few carefully inserted links in the story guide him or her to the brilliant conclusion. In Suikerspin Erik Vlaminck tells a family saga based on fact, set in an extraordinary world and replete with dark intrigue and sinister secrets.
The tone is controlled, the language authentic and laconic. A dramatic, penetrating read with much covert humour.