A brilliantly constructed novel in six mini-dramas about the tenants of a holiday house
In what is by now the extensive oeuvre of Vonne van der Meer, islands occupy a place of prominence. Her characters visit islands in search of peace and quiet, and are then compelled by the isolation to reflect on their lives. On an island, we learn from her new book, everything happens for the first time. Eilandgasten takes place in a holiday house on an island off the coast of Holland called Vlieland. The scheme of the novel, which is brilliant in its simplicity, enables the author to incorporate six very different stories, or mini-dramas. Each chapter introduces a new tenant or tenants; the holiday house is the principal thread that runs through them.
The house is inhabited by people in crisis: a couple with children, whose father has just committed adultery; a widower planning a suicidal accident so as to spare his daughters; a pregnant girl who, after lengthy reflection, decides to keep her child; a woman with an illness; two lovers caught up in a platonic affair. There is an element of secrecy in all six of Van der Meers stories: there is something that one of the characters either cannot or will not reveal. The author weaves together all their stories with superb subtlety, using a number of binding elements: the book that all of the guests sign; a bottle of shampoo repeatedly left in the bathroom, and above all the woman who cleans up after the old tenants have left, greets the new ones and wonders all the while about the various tales they have to tell.
The power of the novel becomes clear for instance in the story of the first guests, Chiel and Dana, and their little boy Floris. Their holiday is overshadowed by the fact that Chiel has just slept with another woman at a conference in Berlin. Chiel does everything he can to regain his wife’s trust, only to have his nose rubbed in his mistake with each new attempt - as for instance when Dana discovers that Chiel gave one of her favourite books to his lover. Fourty pages later the author quietly returns to this, when the cleaning woman flnds Dana’s cheery note in the guestbook: ‘Lucky there’s a bookstore on the island.’ The stories of the tenants of Duinroos are neither bitter nor cynical; in the end each of them choses life. Eilandgasten is thus a breviary of sorts about ordinary, fragile people and the things that happen to them. Held together by a series of subtle motives, the novel is thoughtfully narrated in the stylish, poetic prose that has become Van der Meer’s trademark.