Nonfiction about doctors’ memorable patients and a life of chronic pain and disability; novels set in 1970s Canada and contemporary (but magically outside-of-time) Paris.
That One Patient: Doctors’ and nurses’ stories of the patients who changed their lives forever by Ellen de Visser
[Translated from the Dutch by Brent Annable]
Ellen de Visser is a science writer for the most popular newspaper in the Netherlands, De Volkskrant. Her “That One Patient” column, which began in the summer of 2017, turns interviews with medical professionals into punchy first-person narratives. A collection of them was published in Dutch in 2019. This English translation tacks on 10 additional pieces based on conversations with English and American practitioners (including Dr. Anthony Fauci, immunologist and presidential medical advisor), four of them explicitly reflecting on COVID-19.
Many of the cases are decades old yet stuck with the doctor or nurse in question because of a vital lesson learned. Overtreatment is regretted just as much as an omission of care. Again and again, these medical professionals conclude that it’s impossible to judge someone else’s decisions or quality of life. For instance, a surgeon admits he had a hard time empathizing with his obese patients undergoing stomach reduction until he followed up with a young woman who told him about how invisible she’d felt before her surgery. Premature and disabled children bring grief or joy, not always in the expected doses. A doctor resents the work his team puts into repairing a woman who jumped from an eighth-floor window – why the heroic measures for someone who wanted to die? – until he learns she was pushed. A cancer surgeon develops breast cancer and now knows exactly what her patients go through.
Some of these stories are disturbing: being stalked by a patient with a personality disorder, a man poisoning his girlfriend, a farmer predicting the very day and time of his death. A gynaecologist changes his mind about abortion after he meets a 15-year-old who gave birth at home and left her baby outside in a plastic bag to die of exposure. Other pieces are heart-warming: A paramedic delivers a premature, breech baby right in the ambulance. Staff throw a wedding at the hospital for a dying teen (as in Dear Life by Rachel Clarke). A woman diagnosed with cancer while pregnant has chemotherapy and a healthy baby – now a teenager. There’s even a tale from a vet who crowdfunded prostheses for a lively terrier.
One unique thing about the Netherlands is that euthanasia is legal and provided by doctors upon the express request of a patient suffering from a terminal illness. It is taken for granted in these essays, yet some interviewees express their discomfort with it as an option for young patients. De Visser is careful to note that, even with the situation as it is, only 4% of deaths in the Netherlands are by euthanasia, and the majority of these are end-stage cancer cases.
As with any collection of this nature, some stories are more enticing than others, but overall I found it a surprising and moving set of reflections that is alive to ethical complexities and grapples with tough issues like disability, doctor error, loneliness, pain, and sense of purpose.
Two quotes, in particular, stood out to me, one from a nurse – “We are only ever guests in other people’s lives, and that’s how we ought to behave” – and the other from Dr. Fauci’s piece. In 2014 he treated a doctor who had been volunteering in Sierra Leone after an Ebola outbreak but became ill with the virus and had to be evacuated. “He cited Hippocrates: ‘It is far more important to know what sort of person has the disease, rather than what sort of disease the person has.’ You treated me like a person, not a disease, he said. And that’s what medicine is all about.”
With thanks to 4th Estate for the proof copy for review.
A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George
Over a year of lockdowns, many of us have become accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (My full review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Times Literary Supplement. See also Eleanor’s thorough review.) This is top of my wish list for next year’s Barbellion Prize shortlist.
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson
I discovered Mary Lawson in 2015 with Road Ends and caught up with Crow Lake in the summer of 2019. All four of her books are set in fictional locations inspired by the villages and rural areas of Northern Ontario, where the author grew up before moving to England in 1968. So Solace, while not a real town, is true to her memory and, despite the sometimes gruff or know-it-all locals, an emotional landmark for the three central characters, all of whom are processing trauma and looking for places of comfort where they can start over.
1972. First we meet Clara, a plucky seven-year-old sitting vigil. She’s waiting for the return of two people: her sixteen-year-old sister, Rose, who ran away from home; and their next-door neighbour, Mrs. Orchard, whose cat, Moses, she’s feeding until the old lady gets back from the hospital. As days turn into weeks, though, it seems less likely that either will come home, and one day Clara sees a strange man moving boxes around in Mrs. Orchard’s house. This is Liam Kane, who’s inherited the house from a family friend. In his thirties and recently divorced, he’s taking a break in this tiny town, never imagining that he might find a new life. The third protagonist, and only first-person narrator, is Elizabeth, who lies in a hospital bed with heart trouble and voices her memories as a monologue to her late husband.
As we cycle through these three characters’ perspectives in alternating chapters, we gradually come to understand the connections between them. There are satisfying parallels in that, on multiple occasions but in slightly different ways, a child attaches to an older person or an adult stands in as a guardian for a neglected child. All of Lawson’s creations, even the secondary figures, are dealing with distressing memories or a loss of some kind, the details of which might only emerge much later on. Solace offers myriad opportunities for recovery, whether kitty playtime at Mrs. Orchard’s or diner food and homemade ice cream.
Like Lawson’s other works, this is a slow burner featuring troubled families. Her characters, often full of regret and sorrow, take a shadowy past as a prompt to reset their lives. They’re charming in spite of their flaws. I recalled that Crow Lake also looks back to the climactic happenings experienced by a seven-year-old girl. And like Road Ends, A Town Called Solace makes a convincing case for present decisions being influenced by historical trauma. It’s a tender and inviting story I’d recommend to readers of Wendy McGrath and Anne Tyler, with Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley and Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout as specific readalikes. (My dilemma now is whether to read my only remaining Lawson novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, right away or save it: she’s not the most prolific author, with four books in 19 years.)
A favorite passage:
[Liam’s] life prior to coming north seemed to be taking on the quality of an old movie, one in which he’d been deeply engrossed while watching it but which now seemed trivial, unconvincing and profoundly lacking in either colour or plot. Solace had colour and plot in spades, maybe too much. In every way it was coming to seem more real than Toronto, with its endless malls and traffic jams and high-powered jobs. Though maybe, if he went back to Toronto, the same would be true in reverse. Maybe when he’d been back for a couple of months he’d find that it was Solace that seemed unreal, its unremarkable streets and stores like something from a dream, its dramatic landscape fading to nothing, like a holiday photo left in the sun.
With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.
The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley
(Published in the USA in December 2020 under the title Perestroika in Paris. It’s been given a The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse treatment for its UK release.)
My summary for Bookmarks magazine: “A racehorse, Perestroika—nicknamed Paras—strays from her unlocked suburban stable one day, carrying her groom’s purse in her mouth, and ends up in Paris’s Place du Trocadéro. Here she meets Frida the dog, Sid and Nancy the mallards, and Raoul the raven. Frida, whose homeless owner died, knows about money. She takes euros from the purse to buy food from a local market, while Paras gets treats from a baker on predawn walks. Etienne, an eight-year-old orphan who lives with his ancient great-grandmother, visits the snowy park to feed the wary animals (who can talk to each other), and offers Paras a home. A sweet fable for animal lovers.”
Yes, this is a talking animal book, but the animals only talk to each other; they communicate with humans through their gestures and soulful eyes. Kindly shopkeepers work out what Frida wants to buy based on what she stares at or points to with a paw; the baker whose window Paras passes on her early morning walks intuits that the horse is hungry; Etienne, who gives a couple of the stray animals a home during a chill winter, learns to understand when Paras needs to go out to relieve herself, after piles of dung build up in the sitting room.
I liked how patiently and convincingly Smiley builds the portrait of each character – human or animal – and the overall situation of kindness and good fortune. Raoul is particularly amusing for his birdsplaining: “It is a feature of age. I have learned so many things in my life that they just force their way out of my beak,” he says. However, a crow would be much more realistic for Paris (or any city) than a raven, and, overall, this was a little twee and farfetched for my tastes. It was nice to read something a bit different from Smiley, who I haven’t tried since her Last Hundred Years Trilogy. She has a sideline in YA horse novels; this should probably have been lumped with those. (Annabel liked it a bit more.)
I was sent an unsolicited review copy by Picador/Mantle.
What recent releases can you recommend?
We got back on Monday from a packed week in Ghent and Amsterdam. Despite the chilly, showery weather and a slightly disappointing Airbnb experience in Ghent, it was a great trip overall. Our charming little B&B apartment in Broek in Waterland, a 20-minute bus ride from Amsterdam, more than made up for the somewhat lackluster accommodation in Belgium and was a perfect base for exploring the area. With our three-day, all-inclusive regional travel passes we were free to hop on as many trams and buses as we wanted.
On Saturday we crammed in lots of Amsterdam’s main attractions: the Rijksmuseum, the Begijnhof cloisters, the Botanical Gardens and the Anne Frank House, interspersed with window shopping, a rainy picnic lunch and an Indonesian takeaway dinner eaten by a canal. I also got to visit a more off-the-beaten-track attraction I’d spotted in our guide book: De Poezenboot or “The Cat Boat,” a home for strays moored on the Singel canal. Alas, the resident kitties were not as friendly as many we met on the rest of the trip, but it was still fun.
The highlight of our Amsterdam stay was the Van Gogh Museum on Sunday morning. It was crowded – everything was; though Ghent was very quiet, Amsterdam doesn’t seem to be into its off season yet, if it even has one – but we took our time and saw every single painting, many of which I’d never come across in reproductions. The galleries are organized in chronological order, so you get to trace Van Gogh’s style and state of mind over the years. Superb.
At this point we were just about overwhelmed by the big city atmosphere, so we spent much of the next day and a half in the outlying Dutch towns of Marken and Edam. Flat fields and dykes, cows, cobbled streets and bicycles everywhere – it’s what you’d expect of Holland’s countryside, apart from a surprising dearth of windmills.
- This Ghent University library – I’m presuming it held Special Collections/rare books:
- The American Book Center in Amsterdam:
What I read:
- Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov: A comic novel about a Russian professor on an American college campus. While there are indeed shades of Lucky Jim – I certainly laughed out loud at Timofey Pnin’s verbal gaffes and slapstick falls – there’s more going on here. In this episodic narrative spanning 1950–4, Pnin is a figure of fun but also of pathos: from having all his teeth out and entertaining the son his ex-wife had by another man to failing to find and keep a home of his own, he deserves the phrase Nabokov originally thought to use as a title, “My Poor Pnin”.
- Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker: Bosker gave herself a year and a half to learn everything about wine in hopes of passing the Court of Master Sommeliers exam. Along the way she worked in various New York City restaurants, joined blind tasting clubs and attended an olfactory conference. The challenge included educating her palate, absorbing tons of trivia about growers and production methods, and learning accepted standards for sommelier service. The resulting book is a delightful blend of science, memoir and encounters with people who are deadly serious about wine.
- You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann: And I thought my Airbnb experience was a nightmare? This is a horror novella about a writing retreat gone bad. The narrator is a screenplay writer who’s overdue delivering the sequel to Besties. As he argues with his partner, tries to take care of his daughter and produces fragments of the screenplay, the haunted house in the mountains starts to close in on him. I’ve loved Kehlmann’s work before (especially F), but he couldn’t convince me of the narrator’s state of mind or the peril. I actually found the book unintentionally humorous.
- The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker: A Dutch translator and Emily Dickinson scholar has fled a mistake in her personal life and settled in rural Wales at the foot of Snowdon. “She had left everything behind, everything except the poems. They would have to see her through. She forgot to eat.” On her farmstead is a dwindling flock of geese and, later on, a young man surveying for a new footpath. Amidst her quiet, secret-filled days we also learn of her husband’s attempts to find her back in Amsterdam. Bakker’s writing is subtle and lovely, yet the story never quite took off for me.
- Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach: If you liked Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Miniaturist, you may also enjoy this atmospheric, art-inspired novel set in the 1630s. (Originally from 1999, it’s recently been adapted into a film.) Sophia, married off to an old merchant, falls in love with Jan van Loos, the painter who comes to do their portrait. If Sophia and Jan are ever to be together, they’ll have to scrape together enough money to plot an elaborate escape. I thought this was rather soap opera-ish most of the way through, though I was satisfied with how things turned out in the end.
Plus other books I had on the go (lots of short works and literature in translation):
- Dangling Man by Saul Bellow
- Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
- The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen
- The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories by Etgar Keret
- Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love and Manic Depression by David Leite
- The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
- Honeydew: Stories by Edith Pearlman
- A Girl Walks into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work by Miranda Pennington
What have you been reading recently?
Do you find that books read ‘on location’ never quite live up to your expectations?
The Institute by Vincent Bijlo
[London’s Holland Park Press specializes in making classic and contemporary Dutch literature available in English translation.]
Otto Iking is a resident at the Institute, a boarding school for the blind. He characterizes his fellow students firstly according to their smell – “foul soap,” “piss” or “grated Swiss cheese” – only later adding in details about their speech and habits. It’s a zany sort of place, powered by pranks and strange decisions. Some stand-out scenes include hiding Harry’s glass eyes and a visit from the president of Surinam, a former Dutch colony. The slapstick humor works well (“When I walked into a lamppost, I said sorry. When I struck my head against a traffic sign, I said sorry. No one has ever apologised to street furniture as often as I did”), but some humor translates less well, seeming cruel or even offensive (“Tony was fat and deaf and black-skinned”).
Alongside the silliness is the matter of Otto’s coming of age. He has the first inklings of what sex is about and falls for Sonja, and also undergoes training to prepare him for the real world, things like reading and writing Braille, preparing and eating tricky meals (soup’s a killer). One day he hopes to go to a mainstream school and broadcast radio programs. The institutional setting and quirky cast reminded me of The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old and Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle.
The Institute, originally from 1998, was published on April 27th. Translated from the Dutch by Susan Ridder. My thanks to Bernadette Jansen op de Haar for sending a free copy for review.
This is the first of three Otto Iking novels. Vincent Bijlo, a Dutch stand-up comedian, was born blind.
Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel
[Peirene Press issues its translated European novellas in trios. This is the final installment in the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series; I’ve also reviewed the first two, The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch and The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay.]
I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel narrated by a homeless person before. Gabriela von Haßlau has a noble name and a solid upper-middle-class background – her father was a surgeon and chief medical officer specializing in varicose veins; her mother was trained as a radiographer before becoming a housewife and society hostess – but her life took a turn for the worse at some point and she now lives in an encampment under a canal bridge in the town of Leibnitz (a fictional stand-in for Leipzig).
It’s July 1994 and she decides to write her life story on whatever scraps of paper she can get her hands on. She remembers being forced to play the violin as a child even though she was largely unmusical, enduring mockery at school for being one of the intelligentsia, playing hooky with her best friend Katka, and failing at a mechanical engineering apprenticeship. The narrative toggles between Gabriela’s memories and her present situation: getting blankets and food from a shelter and trying to avoid being sent to the mental hospital.
My unfamiliarity with German history, especially that relating to East Germany and reunification, means I probably missed some nuances of the plot; I found the ending quite sudden. What was most worthwhile about the book for me was experiencing homelessness with Gabriela and tracing some of the unfortunate events that led her to this situation. It’s also interesting to see how she shapes her life story in scenes and streams of consciousness.
Dance by the Canal, originally from 1994, was published on July 3rd. Translated from the German by Jen Calleja. With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
Hair Everywhere by Tea Tulić
[London’s Istros Books specializes in Balkans and South-Eastern European literature in translation.]
How could I resist such a terrific title and cover image? This was Croatian novelist Tea Tulić’s first book. In brief, titled vignettes almost like flash fiction stories, she dramatizes how a cancer diagnosis affects three generations of women. The book is strong on place, sensual detail and scene-setting. The narrator’s mother is in the hospital, and all the specialists and medicinal plant extracts in the world don’t seem to be helping. In such a restrictive narrative format, a line or two of dialogue can reveal a lot about a character’s attitude. The grandmother is a weary pessimist – “I just need to help your mother get through this and then I can die” – while the narrator is quite the hypochondriac.
The tone ranges from poignant to cynical, as in the absurd two-page sequence in which the family cannot locate an on-duty doctor who can read the latest X-ray results for them. The deadpan language and mixture of black humor and pathos reminded me of Adios, Cowboy by Olja Savičevi, which coincidentally is the only other Croatian novel I’ve encountered, and was originally published in the same year, 2011.
A few favorite lines:
“One little cloud was urinating.”
“While I watch her lying in bed, I can feel the umbilical cord between us. Something I have tried to cut a thousand times already. And now I hold onto that invisible cord as though I were hanging from a bridge.”
“Patrick Swayze” in its entirety: “My brother is angry because the doctors say they cannot help Mum. I tell him Patrick Swayze had lots of money but he still died of cancer.”
Hair Everywhere was published on May 22nd. Translated from the Croatian by Coral Petkovich. My thanks to Susan Curtis for sending a free copy for review – and to TJ at My Book Strings for making me aware of this title during Women in Translation Month.
Novels narrated by an octogenarian and an unborn child; memoirs about connection with nature and escaping an abusive relationship; and a strong poetry collection that includes some everyday epics: these five wildly different books are all 4-star reads I can highly recommend.
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old
In this anonymous Dutch novel in diary form, Hendrik Groen provides a full reckoning of how 2013 went down in his Amsterdam old folks’ care home. He and five friends form the “Old But Not Dead” club and take turns planning exciting weekly outings. Much comic relief is provided by his incorrigibly tippling friend, Evert, and the arrival of Eefje makes late-life romance seem like a possibility for Hendrik. However, there’s no getting around physical decay: between them these friends suffer from incontinence, dementia, diabetic amputations and a stroke. By the time 2014 rolls around, their number will be reduced by one. Yet this is a tremendously witty and warm-hearted book, despite Hendrik’s sad family history. It’s definitely one for fans of A Man Called Ove – but I liked this more. A sequel from 85-year-old Hendrik came out this year in Dutch; I’ll be looking forward to the English translation.
The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy
By Michael McCarthy
An environmental journalist for the UK’s Independent, McCarthy offers a personal view of how the erstwhile abundance of the natural world has experienced a dramatic thinning, even just in England in his lifetime. He gives both statistical and anecdotal evidence for that decline; as a case study he discusses the construction of a sea wall at Saemangeum in South Korea, responsible for decimating a precious estuary habitat for shorebirds. As if to balance his pessimism about the state of the world, McCarthy remembers singular natural encounters that filled him with joy and wonder – first discovering birdwatching as a lad near Liverpool, seeing a morpho butterfly in South America – but also annual displays that rekindle his love of life: the winter solstice, the arrival of cuckoos, and bluebells. This memoir is more sentimental than I expected from an English author, but I admire his passion and openness.
By Ian McEwan
My seventh McEwan novel and one of his strongest. Within the first few pages, I was utterly captivated and convinced by the voice of this contemporary, in utero Hamlet. Provided you suspend disbelief a bit to accept he can see/hear/surmise everything that happens – the most tedious passages are those where McEwan tries to give more precise justification for his narrator’s observations – the plot really works. Not even born and already a snob with an advanced vocabulary and a taste for fine wine, this fetus is a delight to spend time with. His captive state pairs perfectly with Hamlet’s existential despair, but also makes him (and us as readers) part of the conspiracy: even as he wants justice for his father, he has to hope his mother and uncle will get away with their crime; his whole future depends on it.
Favorite line: “I have lungs but not air to shout a warning or weep with shame at my impotence.”
How Snow Falls
By Craig Raine
One of the few best poetry collections I’ve read this year. It contains nary a dud and is a good one to sink your teeth into – it’s composed of just 20 poems, but several are in-depth epics drawn from everyday life and death. Two elegies, to a dead mother and a former lover, are particularly strong. I loved the mixture of clinical and whimsical vocabulary in “I Remember My Mother” as the poet charts the transformation from person to corpse. “Rashomon” is another stand-out, commissioned as an opera and inspired by the short story “In a Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. In couplets with a flexible rhyme scheme, the poem alternates the perspectives of a bandit, a captive husband, his raped wife, and the woodcutter who becomes an unwilling observer. Alliteration is noteworthy throughout the collection, but here produces one of my favorite lines: “Sweet cedar chips were spurting in the gloom like sparks.”
Land of Enchantment
By Leigh Stein
Stein tells of her abusive relationship with Jason, a reckless younger man with whom she moved to New Mexico. The memoir mostly toggles between their shaky attempt at a functional relationship in 2007 and learning about his death in a motorcycle accident in 2011. Even though they’d drifted apart, Jason’s memory still had power over her. Breaking free from him meant growing up at last and taking responsibility for her future. You might call this a feminist coming-of-age narrative, though that makes it sound more strident and formulaic than it actually is. I admired the skipping around in time, and especially a late chapter in the second person. I also enjoyed how New Mexico provides a metaphorical as well as a literal setting; Stein weaves in references to Georgia O’Keeffe’s art and letters to put into context her own search to become a self-sufficient artist.
Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?
Dutch artist and writer Barbara Stok’s Vincent is the second graphic novel I’ve read from SelfMadeHero’s “Art Masters” series, after reviewing Munch last month. It’s another biographical study of an artist, in this case of Vincent van Gogh. Oddly, though, the drawing style and the subject’s vibrant shock of red hair reminded me most of Agatha.
The book focuses primarily on the time van Gogh spent in the South of France. He settled in Arles, staying first in a hotel and then in a large rental house he hoped to turn into an artists’ colony – he temporarily attracted Paul Gauguin before driving him away with his strict, workaholic ways and his temper.
In presumably authentic letters to his younger brother Theo (an art dealer who supported him financially) back in Paris, van Gogh details his progress and tells of his fondness for the Provence scenery. I particularly love the panels where you can spot the direct inspiration for some of van Gogh’s most famous paintings: wheat fields, cypress trees, sunflowers, irises, a starry night sky, and even his cluttered bedroom.
We also get insights into the philosophy behind van Gogh’s work: “An artist has to put character and emotion into his work, not just paint whatever sells,” he insists to an art dealer who expects him to pander to public taste. “I use lots of different techniques, all mixed together. I like to exaggerate the colors in order to capture the soul of the subject,” he explains to a couple of fellow painters who take an interest in him. He used thick, confident brush strokes and painted quickly, making him annoyingly prolific in others’ eyes.
Stok does a wonderful job of depicting van Gogh as a misunderstood genius who drove people away with his lack of social skills, and sensitively introduces the breakdown during which he famously cut off his ear. He admitted himself to a mental hospital, where he could be treated for his epileptic attacks and continued to paint natural scenes under supervision.
The book closes on what seems to be a fairly positive note: van Gogh voluntarily leaves the hospital and moves to Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, where he can be closer to Theo and his young family. “I foresee a future full of problems, but I’m not pessimistic,” he declares to his brother. And yet the final page shows a pair of gravestones: Vincent died in 1890 at age 37 and Theo just a year later, at 33.
Turn back one page and you see what might actually be a rather ominous scene: van Gogh has been painting in a wheat field; in one last two-page spread, he has disappeared from view and a flock of crows has taken off and filled the sky. Were they startled by the gunshot of his attempted suicide? While still true to the facts of van Gogh’s life, it’s a refreshingly subtle ending.
Stok perfectly captures van Gogh’s personality amid the warm colors of the French countryside, and whetted my appetite to read his letters for myself. I’d recommend this to anyone with an interest in the lives of artists, whether you think you’re a fan of graphic novels or not.
With thanks to the publisher, SelfMadeHero, for the free copy for review. Translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson.
The latest book from Peirene Press is narrated by a gorilla. That’s no secret: it’s an explicit warning given in the blurb. Yet the narrator doesn’t remain a gorilla. The clue is in the title: in The Man I Became, the eleventh novel by Belgian Flemish author Peter Verhelst (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer), various species are captured and forcibly humanized. Our narrator – whose name we never know – remembers his happy life in Africa:
We caught termites by pushing long twigs, as flexible as blades of grass, into their mounds and then licking the twigs clean. … We hung from branches one-handed to show off our muscles. We felt like princes and princesses. We were young and beautiful and our bliss was never going to end.
But soon his fellows start disappearing, and eventually the riders come for him too. He’s captured and marched across the desert to the sea to be shipped to the New World. The gorillas’ training begins soon after they arrive.
We learned to walk upright. ‘Faster! Taller!’ said the human. … Then we learned how to shave. … We learned a new language word by word. We learned to eat from a bowl and then with knife and fork. … We learned to powder our skin to make it lighter.
At this point I started to get a bit nervous about the book’s racial connotations. Especially as the gorillas-in-transition become sexual objects, I wondered what Verhelst could be attempting to say about the notions of the noble savage and the purification of the race.
The creatures’ progress is carefully documented. They carry phones that function as identification as well as an external memory. The art of conversation is something they practice at cocktail parties, where the narrator learns that he and his kind are not the only ones; giraffes, buffalo, leopards, parrots, lions and bonobos have all been subjected to the same experiment. With all of them together in the same room, the animals have to suppress their natural fear reactions.
The narrator becomes an animal trainer for the evolution-in-action show at Dreamland, an amusement park with roller coasters and fast food. There are different classes of animals, you see; some remain animals and do menial duties, while a chosen few are transformed into humans. He halfheartedly looks for his brother and has a brief affair with Emily. When a violent incident leaves several dead and the narrator’s human is caught acquiring animals through the black market, Dreamland’s very existence is threatened. (If you know the history of the real Dreamland, a longtime Coney Island attraction, you may have an inkling.)
This novella is scarcely 120 pages. Short books can be wonderful, but that’s not the case if there’s no space to craft a believable plot. The pace is so quick here that there’s no chance to bed into scenes and settings, and the narrator is never entirely convincing – whether as a gorilla, a man or something in between. Too much of the book feels dreamlike and fragmentary.
Meanwhile, the ideology bothered me. Is this simply a social satire à la Animal Farm, to which it’s compared in the prefatory material? A sort of ‘some animals are more equal than others’ message? If so, then, well, that’s been done before. Nor is there any shortage of books mocking caste systems and eugenic experimentation. Apart from a handful of memorable lines, the prose is quite simplistic, and the overall storyline doesn’t feel original.
Verhelst has written that he was inspired by three things: a troop of cheeky baboons encountered in South Africa, the history of the early-twentieth-century Dreamland, and news of the completed human genome project. “What is a human? Is it a creature that can smile while walking on two legs? A creature with a signature and a mobile phone?” he asks. These are interesting questions, certainly, but I felt they were not explored with particular depth or panache here.
The Man I Became was my third Peirene book, after The Looking-Glass Sisters. This one was a disappointment, but I will not let that deter me from trying more, including the other two in the “Fairy Tale series: End of Innocence”: Marie Sizun’s Her Father’s Daughter and Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake.
With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy.