This moving novel gives a voice to the silent grief of the mothers of stillborn children
With A Twilight Life, Jaap Robben creates an unforgettable paean to women who live with a secret grief. 81-year-old Frieda Tendeloo lives in a nursing home and increasingly finds her thoughts returning to the baby she lost in childbirth. A Twilight Life shows how this trauma has left lasting marks in an otherwise long and happy life.
Shortly after the death of Frieda’s husband and carer Louis, Frieda moves into a nursing home. During this period of mourning, the fact that her son Tobias is expecting a child should be a bright spot. But for Frieda it brings up long-buried memories of the year 1963, when she was a free-spirited young girl living with her parents in Nijmegen, a Catholic provincial town. There, she meets Otto, a married man. Thanks to Robben’s description, the reader falls in love with him along with Frieda. A string of secret rendezvous follow. She goes hunting for moths with him at night – Otto is an avid butterfly collector – and on one occasion they even share a hotel room, with the reservation made under her name so no one will know.
Their affair ends badly when Frieda gets pregnant. She barely receives any support from Otto, who keeps talking about ‘her baby’. She loses her job, is disowned by her parents, and when she gives birth Otto immediately takes the baby away from her. She only gets to see its tiny feet before waking up in a Catholic hospital, where she is told the baby has died and that the tradition is for nuns to put unbaptised stillborn children in adult coffins so they can still be buried in consecrated ground. They urge her to keep quiet and forget about her misfortune. She never sees Otto again. Later on she marries Louis and they have a son, Tobias.
The novel alternates between the elderly Frieda and scenes from her past. Gradually the reader begins to understand why she is affected so deeply by certain things in the present. She and Tobias find Otto, who tells her where he took their baby at the time. This culminates in a harrowing and moving ending in which Frieda and Tobias find the place where her firstborn is buried.
With A Twilight Life, inspired by true events, Robben not only pulls back the veil on Frieda’s story, but also shines a light on the experiences of countless women between the 1950s and 1980s. Thanks to Robben’s deft skill as a writer, the story never feels too heavy – tension and emotion are carefully calibrated. The result is an impressive story about buried female trauma, caused by society, organised religion and the dominant social mores.