Mensje van Keulen
Love has no Brains
A refined psychological game
We find ourselves in a seemingly ordinary situation of the sort Mensje van Keulen favours for her stories and novels. She is a subtle storyteller with a sharp eye for significant, often slightly bizarre details that give her work a melancholy atmosphere and considerable power. Her characters are not superheroes, indeed they could be the man or woman next door. In Liefde heeft geen hersens (Love has no Brains) a slightly shabby block of flats serves as the realistic facade behind which all kinds of things turn out to be happening.
The heroine of the novel is called Romy. She was named after Romy Schneider by her mother, a fan of the ‘Sissy’ films. Van Keulen’s readers will know that this is not without significance. Like her namesake, Romy appears sweet and charming, helpful and loyal, but she is not rewarded for it in her life. The very opposite, in fact. Loveable though Romy may be, it seems no one can stay close to her for long. Her deceased husband, kept in an urn in the bedroom wardrobe, was a philanderer; her children avoid her and her love life is going nowhere.
When Romy finds her elderly neighbour, a former ballet dancer called Irma for whom she cleans and does the shopping, dead in her own home one day, she panics. ‘I’m not looking at a peaceful face with old, familiar features. It’s not even empty, it’s a face left, as if by a spasm, with a lasting expression of horror.’ When Romy takes a good look around, she realizes a statuette is missing from Irma’s flat and Freddy the black cat has vanished. Romy can’t help suspecting her son Cristian, who stole something from Irma once when he was a boy. For help she turns to Harro, the caretaker, a former lawyer who still lives at home with his mother. She even decides to remove any cause for suspicion by sprucing up Irma’s body a little. She’s often seen it done during her time helping out as a hostess at the St. Francis cemetery in The Hague.
From this point on Liefde heeft geen hersens has the pace and suspense of a whodunit. We hear from a small parade of characters around Romy, each of whom turns out to have a hidden motive and might well have been involved in elderly Irma’s death. As well as Romy’s son, Harro seems to be involved in something shady. It becomes clear he is a voyeur who loves staring at images from the building’s security cameras, and it’s he who has been stalking Romy.
At the end of the book there is still room for dispute about exactly what happened. Mensje van Keulen keeps us glued to the book right to the very last line, playing a refined psychological game with her characters. An episode from the midst of the main character’s life ends with a sigh that beautifully evokes a sense of tragedy: ‘Rain brings oxygen, Romy. Stay there and take a deep breath, then another, and another. Just let it rain on these flats, this city; let all that water fall and applaud.’