A Flurry of Excitement

jesus christ poster

I won’t be reading or posting much for the next little while. After much anticipation (by us) and a much greater amount of work (by the cast and crew), Citadel High School is presenting Jesus Christ Superstar, opening tonight and closing Saturday. Maddie is playing Mary Magdalene. Rehearsals have been intense the last few weeks! Everyone’s dedication is so impressive–not to mention their stamina.

We are very excited to see the show at last: we’re going tonight and again on Saturday. My lovely parents are flying in from Vancouver so that they can see it too. I’m always happy to see my parents, but this visit is particularly meaningful to me, as it has always made me sad not to be able to share these big events with my family. Since Maddie is graduating this year, this will be her last school musical, so I really appreciate that they are coming all this way for the occasion–leaving behind Vancouver’s beautiful spring for our barren mud and snow flurries! I’m sure we will all manage to have a good time despite the unpromising weather.

snowdrop

Spring trying to arrive in Halifax.

Recent Reading: Novels In Pieces

whistle-darkOnce again the two novels I’ve read most recently have, quite coincidentally, something in common, but this time it’s a matter of form rather than content. Both Emma Healey’s Whistle in the Dark and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer are composed of assembled pieces — too long to be fragments, too short (mostly) to be chapters, always with a suggestive or quirky ‘headline.’ This structure made me slightly irritable in both cases. Why is this a thing to do? What’s the point–aesthetic or thematic? It seems to me the novelist equivalent of those long essays (we’ve all read them) that have little rows of asterisks instead of actual transitions between their parts. It looks unfinished to me. Go on, write the whole novel! We can wait to read it until then. 🙂

whistle

serial-killer

I find I don’t have a great deal else to say about the novels themselves. I read them both fairly fast and with fairly rapt attention, which is something of an endorsement, though to some extent I think it’s also an acknowledgment that small brisk pieces are easier to consume than dense sustained narratives. (Could that be why … ?) Of the two of them, my strong favorite is Healey’s, which is a searching (literally and figuratively) story about a mother and her difficult teenage daughter, who goes missing for four days and then refuses to say where she was or what happened. Like Elizabeth Is MissingWhistle in the Dark effectively captures the stress of disorientation, of not knowing, of grasping at an elusive and also frightening truth. It also seems to me a very realistic portrayal of a mother’s frustration with being shut out and criticized precisely because she wants more than anything else in the world to help someone she loves. Even in situations less dire than that in the novel, that kind of emotional push and pull can be exhausting. Whistle in the Dark is grimmer than Elizabeth Is Missing: it has none of the whimsy and poignancy of Healey’s first novel and it takes us (again, both literally and figuratively) to darker places–even though in the end I suppose it tends in a happier direction, as there’s no escape, no epiphany, that can bring Maud back from her lost state, whereas we are left feeling hopeful about Jen and Lana.

My Sister, the Serial Killer seemed to me a deft piece of rather morbid and mordant entertainment: fast-paced, funny–in that “I can’t believe this is happening” way that isn’t really (IMHO) a particularly valuable form of wit, because it relies so much on shock–and superficially provocative. I think I would have liked and admired a novel that really grappled with the kind of conflict Braithwaite toys with: how far do you stand by someone committing unpardonable acts? What context, what background, what loyalty, what principle is worth more to you than holding someone accountable for murder? (This is a standard tool in the crime fiction kit, of course.) To me, however, Braithwaite’s treatment seemed glib and shallow and her protagonist’s choice morally indefensible without being interesting in any other way. Meh. YMMV.

Recent Reading: War Stories

Over the past week I read two books about World War II, but that’s as much as they have in common. In fact, they are about such different parts of the war, and they treat their subject so differently, that it makes almost no sense to consider them together, except that I read them one after the other!

The first was Lissa Evans’s Their Finest (which I learned from Dorian’s post was originally called Their Finest Hour and a Half, which makes much more sense!). I liked this novel a lot: it is brisk, wry, witty, and self-aware, especially about the will to create a heroic myth out of circumstances that in reality are an uneven mixture of banality, accident, and tragedy. The Blitz is pretty familiar fictional (and historical) territory–I think the best fictional treatment of it I’ve read is in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which is so good in those parts that I wished she had given up on the novel’s big gimmick and just written the convincing and heartrending book about the Blitz that she is clearly capable of. On the other hand, a convincing and straightforward story (you know, the kind that gets called “old-fashioned”) is harder to pull off than it sounds, and one thing Life After Life and Their Finest have in common is breaking up that potential narrative into parts that diffuse the risk. If the ingenuity comes at a cost, it’s one that Evans at least is clearly paying deliberately as she resists the pull of the romanticizing and potentially dangerous nostalgia with which the Blitz is now so often treated.

Dorian describes Their Finest as “perfect light reading” and then goes on to explain with his usual astute clarity how it is also about the way “hard work underlies effortlessness.” His post is really good and thorough, so if you want more detail about Evans’s novel I recommend you pop over and read it. I think in the end he admires Their Finest more than I did, but I certainly enjoyed it a lot, and I appreciate that Dorian passed his copy on to me when we had the pleasure of meeting in person in Halifax last week! I will definitely look for Evans’s other books.

I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed Michael Kaan’s The Water Beetles, which follows a young Chinese boy’s experiences after the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941. Much of the novel is dedicated to literal and often harrowing details of the dirt and pain and suffering and inhumanity Chung-Man endures, first as a refugee from and then as a prisoner of the Japanese forces. The worst of many horrors is the forced “evacuation” of a hospital to make way for Japanese soldiers who have been wounded:

They began shooting the patients. Despite all the gunfire we’d heard over the past several months, Leuk and I started at the first shot. On the top floor a window opened, and the shouting became much clearer as all the windows banged violently open. It was like the rising of a curtain at the theatre.

An old man with a bandaged head appeared suddenly in a window in a tall-backed wheelchair. One of his hands was raised and waving strangely. He lunged forward as the soldier behind him tipped his chair. The old man plummeted to the gravel below. . . . The soldiers disgorged the sick and mutilated into the air, as though unloading bags off a truck.

Kaan’s flat but relentless prose effectively matches the grim endurance necessary to persist and survive in the face of so much brutality.

The war story in The Water Beetles is interspersed with details about Chung-Man’s more recent life: the novel is as much about the lingering effects of his childhood trauma as it is about the war itself. Identity and continuity are recurrent themes: how is it possible to be the same person we once were when so much separates now and then, and what connects us to that former self? For Chung-Man, it’s memories, and family, and also relics such as the tarnished gold belt buckle that during the war is both a secret resource to be hoarded and a fraught link between his past and the future he hardly dares imagine. After the war, the buckle becomes symbolically suggestive: beneath its blackened surface the gold has endured, just as Chung-Man has survived and made something new of his life. Though the old pain and loss remain a part of him, they have not defined him, and this allows a note of hope to soften the novel’s impact.

Re-Learning Patience

piggy puddle pictureI wrote a post a while back about being in the “muddy, muddy middle” of a project and learning to accept that feeling of muddle as both an inevitable and a necessary stage of the (or at least my) writing process. “I’m learning,” I said then, “to trust my own process more,” and I do, these days–more or less. I still feel stress during that phase, but I recognize it for what it is rather than falling into a panic or succumbing to imposter syndrome just because I don’t at the moment know exactly what I have to say or what form it will take.

It has been a longer while, though, since I was in the middle of a longer project: for some time now I have been writing exclusively essays and book reviews maxing out around 5000 words and sometimes constrained to as few as 300. Working within these narrower parameters is sometimes frustrating–at this point, as I have mentioned here before, I am eager for a chance to stretch, to prove (to myself as much as to current or prospective editors) that I can say and do more. There are some things I like a lot, though, about writing shorter pieces with imminent deadlines, and one of them is that time spent in the muddy middle is, almost by definition, also short.

holtby-woolfSince my recent “but why always Dorothea?” moment about my research, however, as I have begun to look again at the writers and questions that interested me during my previous work on the “Somerville novelists,” I have realized that I am out of practice at coping with the larger-scale muddle that you enter into when you don’t have such narrow goals and limited time frames established at the outset and in fact aren’t even sure what you are trying to do. It’s not that I’m completely aimless right now: I know the territory I want to be in, and I have a sense of the conversations that I want to listen to and then join, albeit in some as-yet uncertain way. I said only half jokingly on Twitter that so far what I’ve done is put all the books I think are relevant into a pile: that’s not all I’ve done, but it is actually part of what I’m doing, not literally but mentally, and it is helpful because the juxtapositions in themselves start to raise questions that interest me. I’m also gathering references, trying to get oriented in the relevant critical landscape(s), which means trying to figure out what those are! I’m doing what I would call “reading around,” not chasing answers to a particular question but trying to learn enough that I can frame a good question.

These are all reasonable things to be doing in the early stages of research–and I do think that I am doing research, even though I haven’t yet defined its scope or specific objectives. So far, though, it all feels quite diffuse, amorphous, and potentially overwhelming. I have been struggling to remind myself that this happened before when I changed research directions, and that it is okay to take time to learn–and there’s a lot to learn! Patience, not panic, is what’s required, but it’s one thing to know that and another to actually be calm and confident about it, and that’s where I have been struggling. I need to keep in mind that this is the same process, just on a larger scale.

3guineas

Anxiety aside, I do like what I am have been doing over the last few weeks. I am excited by the things I’ve been reading and the questions and connections they have prompted me to think about, and that’s a really good feeling. One specific example would be my recent reading of The Years. In my post about it, I emphasized my inability to grasp what is going on in the novel, but I didn’t mention why I chose to read The Years right now. It’s because when I started going back through my Somerville notes and posts, I was reminded how stimulating I had found Winifred Holtby’s book on Virginia Woolf and Woolf’s Three Guineas. Since I needed what Eliot in Daniel Deronda calls “the make-believe of a beginning” for whatever this new project is, I decided that I would start (again) there, with what (to me) is Holtby’s fascinating exercise of sympathetically studying a writer whose fiction she found entirely “alien,” and with my own preference for Woolf’s “tracts” over her novels. Holtby’s book was finished (and Holtby herself had died) before The Years was published, but I was intrigued by descriptions of it as Woolf’s most overtly social or political novel, and also by knowing that it and Three Guineas were initially going to be part of one hybrid essay-novel.

Penguin YearsI struggled with The Years, but I was also very interested in it, at least conceptually. I’ve been reading about it since then, especially about the splitting of the original project into two separate books. I’ve also been thinking about Holtby’s own fiction, especially South Riding, and her self-deprecating description of herself as a “publicist” (rather than an artist / aesthete), and about other novels that are like The Years in giving fictional form to social and political commentary but in very different ways, such as (surprise!) Middlemarch, but also North and South. I hadn’t planned to put any Victorian novels into my pile of relevant books this time, but there they are now, and that has got me thinking about things like periodization and genre and the ways we group or differentiate writers, especially women writers, which brings me back to Holtby’s critical approach, and I’m also interested in Holtby’s political journalism, which reminds me both of the anti-fascist arguments in Three Guineas and of the links between gender politics and fascism in Gaudy Night, which also includes reflections on fictional form and genre . . .

As you can tell, this is not an orderly process! It’s chaos, it’s a mess, it’s a muddle, and I’m in the middle of it. Actually, I’m not even in the middle: I’m just at the beginning of it, and that’s why I need to be patient, with the work and with myself. I have the luxury of time that I am supposed to use for reading and thinking; I should not squander it by fretting or rushing. Even now, after just a couple of weeks, I think I have made some preliminary decisions, not about what to write, yet, but about what’s a priority to read next: more about and from Woolf during the time she was writing The Years and Three Guineas, more about and from Holtby related to her ideas about fiction and (as) politics, more scholarship about women writers and the ‘social novel’ across the Victorian-Modern divide. Before too long, I will also reread The Years, better equipped to see what Woolf is doing–and, in some ways more interesting to me, what she is not doing there that she does in Three Guineas. That seems like progress: it’s almost a plan! Now I just need to take some deep breaths, stop fretting, and get on with it. Slowly.

Slip Slidin’ Away: The Years

The_YearsI have been trying to figure out how (or, perhaps more aptly, why) to write a post about The Years, which I finished reading a while ago. How many times can I confess to my inability to grasp what is going on in Woolf’s fiction? It’s not like I’m proud of it; I certainly don’t think it means Woolf’s fiction is “overrated.” It does mean I can’t say much about the novel itself. At most I can quote some bits I liked–the opening to 1913, for instance, which in both its subject and its cadences reminded me very much of the famous conclusion to Joyce’s “The Dead” and yet, somehow, is obviously not Joyce:

It was January. Snow was falling; snow had fallen all day. The sky spread like a grey goose’s wings from which feathers were falling all over England. The sky was nothing but a flurry of falling flakes. Lanes were levelled; hollows filled; the snow clogged the streams; obscured windows, and lay wedged against doors. There was a faint murmur in the air, a slight crepitation, as if the air itself were turning to snow; otherwise all was silent, save when a sheep coughed, snow flopped from a branch, or slipped in an avalanche down some roof in London. Now and again a shaft of light spread slowly across the sky as a car drove through the muffled roads. But as the night wore on, snow covered the wheel ruts; softened to nothingness the marks of the traffic, and coated monuments, palaces and statues with a thick vestment of snow.

She repeats the word “snow” there nearly as often–and nearly as effectively–as Dickens repeats “fog” in the opening of Bleak House!

Penguin YearsIt’s easy for me to find individual sentences or moments or even longer passages from The Years that I liked: that made me pause to reread them, to think about them, to appreciate them. The problem for me is at the higher (or is it lower?) level of structure, of support for meaning: even as I grasp at these pieces, with what sometimes feels like a nice firm grip, I find myself, or them, slipping again soon after. I lose the thread, I miss the connection, I falter, I am lost. What just happened? Why did he say that? Who is she talking to now, and about what? Why is this the detail we’re getting right now? It’s as if I am looking at the novel through something and so not seeing all of it, or, to reverse the image, as if the novel itself is a screen (and this actually feels like a better, more Woolfian, metaphor) over a fuller version, allowing only indirect access to it. I can tell that there is more to the novel than I am understanding, but it eludes me.

The-YearsOne reasonable response is that I need to work harder as a reader. Another way to put it–my preferred way, since I don’t think I am a lazy reader!–is that I am still learning how to read Woolf (or, Woolf’s fiction, since I am a reasonably good reader of her non-fiction, and of her criticism, which I love and admire). That seems both true and fair, and I believe it would (will) be worth it to keep trying. I also find my difficulties with Woolf’s fiction salutary and productive: they reinforce my conviction that reading really is a skill, something that we can learn and practice. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a good reader unless you study literature formally, any more than you absolutely must take lessons to play an instrument well or learn a language. When pressed to declare course objectives or “learning outcomes” for my classes, though, “helping students become better readers” is at the top of my list. In some respects this is a one-size-fits-all effort, but the example of Woolf is a good reminder that different writers require different things of their readers. I thought The Years would be closer to the kind of novel I’m better at reading, and it is–but it’s still not close enough to make it easily accessible for me.

Sometimes in class I compare critical approaches to an optometrist’s lenses: it’s not until you find the right one(s) that everything you need to see comes into focus. In Woolf’s case, bringing everything into focus might not quite be the point, of course! But there is still probably a way of reading her novels that would make them seem less vertiginous, less elusive, to me. I’ll keep trying, and in the meantime I’ll cling to their moments of beauty and insight.

Reading Lists: Refreshed!

stack-of-booksBook orders for our fall classes are due by April 1. It’s not a hard and fast deadline, but earlier orders make things easier for the bookstore staff and also enable them to organize book buybacks from students for texts that will be assigned again next year. In theory (though things have not always worked out this way) it also means that if there is some kind of supply problem with a fall book selection, they and thus we find out in plenty of time to choose an alternative. So I do always try to meet the deadline! The problem is that it comes up right when the current term is at its most hectic, which is one reason it is tempting to default to the same reading lists (or very close to them) that I used last time around–and that, in turn, is why I have made it one of my priorities this term, while I’m on sabbatical, to see what else I might assign.

This is an ongoing process for my Winter 2020 courses (British Literature After 1800 and 19th-Century British Fiction from Austen to Dickens): I have some ideas, but I’m still thinking, including about just how much change I can realistically handle all at once! For my Fall 2019 courses, though, the die is now cast.

laura-feminist-pressFor Pulp Fiction, I have changed two of the three novels on the list (I’m keeping the short readings the same, so as not to overwhelm myself with new prep!). The first two times I taught it, we read Valdez Is ComingThe Maltese Falcon, and Lord of Scoundrels. I was actually very happy with this list for my purposes: they are all terrific novels, exemplary of their genres but also thought-provoking in their particulars, and the sequence was unified by their engagement with problematic models of masculinity. In practice, however, things did not go as well as I would like. For one thing, Valdez Is Coming was not popular, and it also proved difficult to use for exercises in close reading: there’s a lot going on but it’s subtle, more below the surface than on it, which fits the book well but gave students a lot of trouble. The Maltese Falcon raised different problems: I had more plagiarism cases involving students’ writing on it than I’ve had (to my knowledge, of course) for any text I’ve ever assigned in first year. As a result, I have replaced both of these books: this time our representative Western will be True Grit* and for noir we will read Vera Caspary’s Laura. I have a lot more work to do before I’m ready to teach either of these, but I know already that there will be ripple effects across all of our discussions and assignments because they are both written so differently from the books they are replacing. There is still an underlying thematic link, but it too is different: the new sequence highlights women who break the rules, or upset their prescribed roles.

Blanche on the Lam.2My other fall term course is an upper-level seminar on Women and Detective Fiction. I have put three new books on the syllabus for this iteration, replacing Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only (which many of the students will have studied with me already in the detective fiction survey), Katherine Forrest’s Death at the Nightwood Bar, and Prime Suspect with Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place, Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam, and Katherena Vermette’s The Break. The result is a more diverse list of authors and also (and relatedly) a change in the underlying conceptual apparatus of the course, away from a narrow focus on women as detectives and towards an exploration of how women writers also interrogate or subvert other aspects and tropes of the genre, from point of view to women’s conventional roles as victims or femme fatales. Neely and Vermette in particular also complicate the classic detective story’s commitment to closure, going further than the other readings to challenge the possibility of a real or meaningful “solution” to the crimes they address.

hughes2I feel good about these decisions, but I also have some concerns about taking on so much new material. More specifically, I’m worried that the new books for Pulp Fiction will actually prove more difficult for first-year students, not least because of their idiosyncratic first-person narrators–one of my tasks now is to think through their challenging aspects and provide my students with the right tools and approaches to have a productive discussion about them. I was very comfortable with my old reading list for Women & Detective Fiction–too comfortable, of course, as I realized. Now, however, I am anxious about how to handle the difficult scenarios presented in both In A Lonely Place and The Break and about equipping myself to address the appropriate historical and critical contexts for Neely and Vermette responsibly. But there’s plenty of time between now and September to do this work, and at least now that the book orders are placed my attention will no longer be “dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe” but focused on these particular books.

*No sooner had I pressed ‘publish’ on this post then I got an email from our bookstore saying they aren’t sure True Grit will be available! The best laid plans etc. etc. but we’ll see.

“This Past”: Bart Van Es, The Cut Out Girl

cut out girlAs with the earlier news that Lien stayed with the neighbours, this information comes as a shock. So there were other Jews in hiding right where Lien lived on Algemeer. When she meet Maartje or Hester Rubens, as Lien must have done if she stayed here in this house, she could have had no idea of who they really were. The notion that Bennekom was a Jewish refuge comes as a total surprise to me. I have spent a lifetime visiting this village and, even now, though I have talked to my mother and her family about the work that I am doing, no one has ever mentioned this past.

Bart Van Es’s The Cut Out Girl is remarkable as much for Van Es’s thoughtful diffidence as a narrator as it is for the story he so carefully pieces together for us, a story that includes both intimate and often heartrending details about individual lives as well as broader historical explanations about the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation. On the train home after a day of research in the National Archives, Van Es begins “to question myself about the work I am doing:

Lien asked me about my motivation. There are so many stories like hers and, besides, the bare facts have already been recorded for the Shoah Foundation archive, which was set up by Steven Spielberg soon after he completed his film Schindler’s List back in 1994. Is there anything that I could add to that?

It’s a fair question–what more do we need to know?–but also, as his book goes on to show, the wrong question. There are always more stories to be told, or more ways to tell the stories; we can never work too hard to counter the dehumanizing mass persecution and murder perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators by giving the people they persecuted and murdered the kind of dedicated attention Van Es gives Lien.

van-esVan Es pursues Lien’s story initially because it is also the story of his family: his paternal grandparents sheltered Lien, absorbing her into their family in Dordrecht as the lives of Jews in the Hague, where her parents lived, became increasingly precarious. One of the most painful documents in a book full of wrenching details is the letter Lien’s mother wrote to the unknown recipients of her 9-year-old daughter in August 1942. “She has been taken from me by circumstance,” wrote 28-year-old Catherine de Jong-Spiero;

May you, with the best will and wisdom, look after her. . . . I want to say to you that it is my wish that she will think only of you as her mother and father and that, in the moments of sadness that will come to her, you will comfort her as such.

Catherine died in Auschwitz in November 1942; her husband died in Auschwitz in February 1943. Lien survives, but the story of her relationship with the Van Es family is a complicated one and full of different kinds of sadness beyond the one her mother no doubt foresaw most clearly. For one thing, she has to leave them and go into hiding elsewhere when her secret identity gets out. Then, when the war is over and it is time to reunite hidden children with their families, the Van Esses turn down Lien’s initial request to return to them. Though they change their mind and take her back, that first rejection is a significant blow to a young girl already at a loss to know where she belongs. Eventually Lien and her foster parents break ties altogether; when Bart meets Lien for their first interview, it has been thirty years since the breach.

took-heromaThe Cut Out Girl alternates chapters about Lien’s experiences during the war with chapters recounting Van Es’s research, including interviews with Lien herself, visits to archives and to places Lien lived while in hiding, and meetings with everyone he can find with something to tell him about Lien or about occupied Holland. He shows us Lien as part of the bigger picture, as one girl among many thousands, but also as profoundly individual, as a very particular young girl suddenly removed from everything familiar and having, over and over, to adapt to new people and new expectations, all under a cloud of fear and secrecy. The people who took care of her also are presented with great distinctness. Because most of what he knows about them comes from Lien, it is easy to lose track of the courage these people showed and the fear they must have felt for themselves. Though, as some of their actions show, they were far from perfect, still they rose to the moral occasion at great personal risk and they and people like them saved thousands of lives. “At least 166 Jews spent time in hiding in Bennekom,”  Van Es learns, for instance, “a village of just 5,000, and more than 80 per cent of them survived. This is the opposite of the national picture.” It is hard not to be awed at the actions of Jan and Dieuke Heroma, for example, key parts of a large network “constructed to resist the Nazis.” It was Mrs. Heroma who came to take Lien away from her parents, cheering her on the train to Dordrecht with funny place names: “Double Sausage Street,” a road called “Behind the Wild Pig.” Nothing about the kindly face shown in this photograph of her seems extraordinary, but that’s one of the points a story like Lien’s makes for us: ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things.

lienThe Heromas’ antagonists are those like Harry Evers, one of many Dutch police officers who eagerly enforced Nazi policies, tracking down Jews to meet “the targets set by their German masters.” Evers too is otherwise ordinary, “unremarkable, modestly educated, fond of a drink …. not especially political.” He turns in the opposite direction to Mrs. Heroma, though, joining the Fascist Union and then flourishing in the Political Police, tracking and capturing the same people the Heromas and their allies are working so hard to protect. Van Es goes through boxes of files about Evers, including hundreds of witness statements about his appalling actions. “As I read these things,” Van Es comments quietly, “I think of Lien in hiding.” He tells us about one particular case very close to hers but with a different ending. Miepe Viskooper, age 7, was also sent by her parents into hiding with sympathetic people, in the hope that she would be safe. Discovered, Miepe is caught by Evers and his colleagues as she tries to run from them: “Evers came in right behind her, pointing his revolver, shouting ‘It’s the choke hole for you’ at the little girl.” She was brought to join her parents, who had also been arrested, at Westerbork. “As I read this,” says Van Es,

I think of my own wife and children and imagine that unwanted reunion. I can see the smile of recognition on the face of the child.

Miepe’s father survives, “but he returned to Holland alone.”

As a story of loss and survival during the Holocaust, The Cut Out Girl is engrossing, moving, and sometimes surprising and infuriating. Lien’s particular hardships, it sadly turns out, go beyond the loss of her parents and her constant danger and displacement: there are other villains in her world besides the Nazis and their agents. All the traumas of her childhood play a part in the complications that develop in  later years between her and the Van Esses, and Lien also implicates Henk Van Es, the man she calls “Pa,” Bart Van Es’s grandfather, in a further offense, recalling a terrible day when “before she knows what is happening, he is kissing her and stroking her hair.” It is another later incident, though, a seemingly innocuous miscommunication, that leads Lien to write what her foster mother Jans Van Es calls “the terrible letter,” which in turn prompts Jans to sever ties with her. Lien spent years after that, Bart learns, trying to come to terms with her own history and her relationship with the earlier generations of his family.

Bart-Van-EsThe Cut Out Girl is not a triumphant story: one thing it drives home is that survival by itself is only part of the battle. On a personal level, though, it does end on a hopeful note: Lien has found happiness in a new phase of her life, and gradually new bonds are being formed between her and the family she was first pasted into then cut out from. There is something lovely about the book’s cautious movement towards this happy ending and the self-effacing way Bart reveals that, in ways he could never have anticipated, his work finding out Lien’s story has done more than fill in a gap. The process has led him to think hard about history but also about his own immediate family, especially his relationship with his stepdaughter Josie. Van Es never presents himself as any kind of heroic discoverer: he is learning as he goes, about himself as well as about Lien.

This inviting diffidence–this care to avoid grandstanding or moralizing–extends to his understated observations about parallels between the time he is researching and the time in which he is doing the research. A different (a worse) book might have made this the pitch. Instead, Van Es just quietly points them out as they occur to him, and as a result their implications linger. Driving to Bennekom one night in 2015 he hears on Dutch radio the news of the shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, which is followed by comments and speeches connecting the attack to the shooting of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004. As he drives along,

the radio shifts to a panel discussion in which the phrase ‘Islamic fascism’ recurs. Tomorrow there will be new developments in Paris: a siege at a kosher supermarket that ends in more killings, this time directly targeting Jews. As I pick up speed in the darkness, I am struck again by the obvious overlap between the present epoch and the last one: absurd conspiracy theories, economic recession, and a loss of faith in moderate politicians, who seem to many people to be irrelevant and corrupt. The little car pulls past container lorries that carry goods into Europe: fridges, televisions, furniture, plastic shoes. From the look of these roads nothing is left of the old Europe, but its ghost remains.

Dordrecht-Town-CanalThere have been some shifts, though, some changes in who is feared or hated and how. One day, looking for the exact location of Lien’s first residence in Dordrecht, Van Es realizes his pacing and staring have attracted attention from the current residents: “a middle-aged man in a kameez comes towards me, asking suspiciously, with a heavy accent, what I am doing. . . . ‘You ought not to be spying on people,’ the man tells me.” As he walks away, Van Es is

reminded of the obvious fact that the Muslim community, in terms of the hatred directed towards them, is probably closer to the Jews of the previous century than any other. There are no easy parallels but, all the same, the language of Geert Wilders (whose Party for Freedom has hit 15 per cent in national elections) has an air of the 1930s to it . . . He has spoken of the threat of an ‘Islamic invasion’ and wants no more Muslims to enter the country at all.

50 people were murdered in New Zealand yesterday by someone wielding the same hateful rhetoric along with his high-powered weaponry. Thinking of the suspicion and scrutiny the new inhabitants of the Bilderdijkstraat endure, Van Es is ashamed that he came by “pointing a camera, only to look and not tell.” The project he is there to further, though, is surely part of the larger responsibility we all have not to look away, and then to reflect on the meaning of what we have seen.