In 2008 I read the epic Man Booker Prize shortlisted “The Northern Clemency” by Philip Hensher. A novel which covered the period 1974-1994, it put a mirror up to a suburban existence, the banality and the slow decay during the Thatcher period. The ordinary was becoming art. Then in 2012 the Man Booker Prize Longlisted “The Yips” by Nicola Barker (another behemoth) explored the extreme oddities that live behind the ordinary suburban doors, agoraphobic tattoo artists, Church of England clergy who are obsessed with their fringe, internet savvy barmaids and of course more.
Move over English suburbia and a banal existence because Jorgen Hofmeester has arrived, a resident of the best suburb in Amsterdam, so therefore the whole of Holland, our novel opens with him preparing sushi for his daughter’s graduation party. Jorgen’s a successful editor on the translation desk at a publishing house, has a much younger wife, has invested his property income into a Swiss bank account and he simply lives for his two gorgeous daughters. A suburban dream, the story of a man who has arrived. But is it?
Having children was the wife’s idea, to start with. One morning at breakfast, a breakfast which now seems to him as though it was consumed in another lifetime, she had said: “We’re going to have a baby.”
“How can that be?” he’d asked.
And she had replied: “I stopped taking the pill.”
“A baby,” he said. “My God, aren’t there enough of them in the world? And how can you be sure the child will be healthy?”
But all she had said was: “If I’d left it up to you, it would never have happened.”
All morning long the idea had flustered him, but bu the time lunch was over he had decided to shoulder his responsibility. He waited until work was over at five, then cycled to the bank and took out a life-insurance policy, without telling the wife about it. It was to be a surprise, the money the policy would pay out if anything unexpected happened to him.
That, then, was how Jorgen Hofmeester became a father; as a man who knew nothing more about fatherhood and wanted to know nothing more about it than that it was wise to take out life insurance before the child entered the world.
The first 295 pages of this novel take place at youngest daughter Tirza’s graduation party, we have our protagonist , Jorgen, drifting back and forth in time, recalling what happened to his marriage, his tetchy relationship with his eldest daughter Ibi, his dislike of hedge funds, how Tirza’s boyfriend bears a striking resemblance to September 11 ring leader Mohammed Atta, how Jorgen has been spending his days since the publishing house decided to move him on and of course we learn more of his relationship with Tirza.
This is the party that has to be perfect, that has to prove that the rumors going around about him are not true. How well it has all turned out, that’s what he wants to say, that’s what he wants to get across, how well his life has turned out, how well the children have turned out.
On the surface we have an ordinary family, but as each layer of the onion is peeled back we begin to see a rotten core. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot here, however I will let you know that Jorgen’s relationship with his wife is far from ordinary:
She was standing in front of him. He couldn’t back off, the washing machine was behind him. He could make out the individual pores in her face, the black of her mascara. Maybe she was right, maybe he had been disgusted by her. But disgust was no grounds for divorce, disgust was the zenith of intimacy. The conclusion of intimacy. Its logical conclusion. The familiarity of disgust, the immutability of it, the wistfulness it elicited. The desire to be disgusted by the other person, just one last time. And, with that, to always be a little disgusted by yourself as well.
This novel turns stereotypes on their heads, and no subject seems taboo. We have Jorgen witnessing his eldest daughter having sex with the upstairs tenant, we have Jorgen in intimate liaisons with Tirza’s classmates, we have sexual game playing, domestic violence and once we move from the party to Africa (where Tirza is to travel with her boyfriend) we have locals turning a blind eye to the tourist sex trade.
And throughout, we have an underlying sexual tension, a creepy distasteful feeling that all is not above board with Jorgen and his relationship with his youngest daughter Tirza, yes, there is an undercurrent of incest. Whilst not explicit, the implication is always there:
He presses her against him and he understands – never before has he understood so clearly, so overwhelmingly, so undeniably – that he wants to have no reason to live without Tirza. Without her, life is no longer conceivable, and what is inconceivable in undesired. She is his right to exist. What he is pressing against him now provides him with both the privilege and the obligation to live. Without her there is no more obligation, but also no more right. He can barely remember how he lived before she was around. Waiting, that’s what it was. That’s how he lived all those years, waiting for Tirza. Of course, he didn’t know then that it was Tirza he was waiting for.
This story is one emotional roller coaster and it is one that will disturb you. The ability to evoke feelings throughout and push you into shame simply by the structure of the language or the subjects being discussed in such an off handed manner is wonderful.
Hofmeester’s mouth is dry. For the first time, he thinks he is able to distinguish between pain and despair. Despair is dull and a bit crippling, alos numbing. Despair is not feeling, it’s the opposite; the awareness that you are no longer feeling, that feelings are in the process of slipping away, of leaving you behind on your own.
This may not be a comfortable journey, in the slightest, but it is a journey into a world of taboo that I’ve taken. One I won’t forget for quite some time.