Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Double Dutch: An Interesting Book of Two Halves from The Netherlands….

I have to say I am in two minds about “The Sundial” – Maarten ‘T Hart’s book which represents The Netherlands on my trip. On the one hand, I enjoyed what is a quirky and unusual novel about the taking on of another’s identity, and its consequences, yet - given that this is widely promoted as a complex crime thriller – I felt a little short-changed in that department…

I think maybe the problem is that this novel is trying to be several things at once: a straightforward crime thriller, a mediation of the notion of ‘self’ and also a depiction of an ensemble of off-the-wall characters living together in the provincial city of Maasslius in southern Holland.

Perhaps before further analysis I should offer an overview of the main plot of this book. The publisher’s description covers this fairly well:

The Sundial opens with Leonie Kuyper attending the funeral of her best friend Roos Berczy, who has seemingly died of sunstroke. Leonie has always felt somewhat overshadowed by Roos, who was striking looking and a brilliant pharmacological research assistant to boot. She turns out to have made Leonie her sole heir, provided that she moves into Roos' apartment and cares for her cats. For Leonie, an impoverished translator, it is an offer she cannot refuse and she becomes the owner of a beautiful apartment, a large portfolio of common stocks, and an expensive wardrobe. Gradually Leonie assumes Roos' identity. By wearing her clothes and make-up, she begins to resemble her deceased friend and, as a result, Roos' past starts to crowd in on her. Was Roos a chemist involved in the manufacture of Ecstasy? But Leonie is also confronted with the possibility that Roos had information about the falsification of research findings and might have been murdered by a colleague. And then there's the riddle of exactly how Roos died...

And, as far as plot goes, that is pretty much what you get – and Hart does a workmanlike job of playing out this story. However, I can’t help feeling that the plot is actually more of a secondary device that Hart employs to explore his main interest of the psychological process of Leonie taking on Roos’ personae (physically and mentally). Indeed, Hart has gained something of a reputation as a cross-dresser in his native Holland, often appearing on chat shows dressed as his alter ego 'Martha', and I can’t help feeling that this novel may have been stronger as a psychological exploration of this process of taking on a new identity, without the crime thriller element tacked on.

Indeed, for me, the main ‘was she or wasn’t she murdered’ element was the least convincing and the least satisfying element of this book. What I did find more interesting were the idiosyncratic characters that we are introduced to along the way (the unreconstructed builder Fred, the stuttering lawyer Graafland, the shameless voyeur Mastenbroek, the mentally-fragile Fiona), and Hart has a good feel for the appropriate dialogues and descriptions of these interesting individuals. Interestingly, the one character that does not come across with any conviction in this book is the deceased Roos. Even in retrospect I would have thought we might have got more of a sense of this complex and convoluted character, but for me she remained an enigma, which is curious given that we are constantly told what a larger-than-life person she was.

And so, as a whole, an interesting book but ultimately not a fully satisfying one in a literary sense. That said, it gave me a good sense of a slice of life in modern Holland (a key criteria for my choices of destinations on my journey!) and contained some nice descriptions of the Dutch landscape - both urban and rural - along the way…

And so I make my way from Maasslius to Copenhagen in Denmark, where I shall be visiting courtesy of native author Peter Høeg’s slightly surrealist novel: “The Quiet Girl”. I retrace my steps back to Amsterdam Central station and catch a direct rail link to Schiphol International Airport for just €3.60. From there - having scoped a cheap flight to Denmark (and beware – there are some carriers who will charge you over €300 for a one way trip!) – I board the 17:30 flight on Scandinavian Airlines direct to Copenhagen in Denmark, arriving just 1 hour 20 minutes later, and a bargain at £84.

I look forward to updating you on my travels in Denmark soon!

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