Writers and readers are drawn to natural disasters because they create an urgency that usually makes for compelling reading. But this novel about one of the worst natural disasters in the history of The Netherlands, while it contains wonderful set pieces, is a brilliant idea that never becomes more than that — a brilliant idea.
The Storm by Margriet de Moor. Translated by Carol Brown Janeway. Knopf, 257 pages, $25.95.
Reviewed By Roberta Silman
Margriet de Moor, a Dutch novelist born in 1941 and author of several novels before this one, was a classical singer before she became a novelist, and in The Storm you can feel a musician’s sensibility at work. Here she has created a surreal fugue-like narrative about two sisters, Lidy and Armanda who are, respectively, 23 and 21 and living in Amsterdam when the book begins on the morning of January 31, 1953. That is the day of the worst natural disaster in The Netherlands in 300 hundred years, when a winter hurricane and a peculiar tide combined forces to create a flood in the North Sea that destroyed the dikes protecting the southwestern part of the country and caused Zeeland to disappear. Almost two thousand Dutch people perished, as well as several hundred others in neighboring countries.
Both writers and readers are drawn to natural disasters because they create an urgency that usually makes for compelling reading, and in this novel, beautifully translated by Carol Brown Janeway, there are some wonderful set pieces. But in the end The Storm strikes this reader as a brilliant idea that somehow never becomes more than just that – a brilliant idea.
Lidy Brouwer, the older sister, has become pregnant by and marries Sjoerd Blaauw, who was, not at all incidentally, Armanda’s boyfriend. When the child, Nadja, is two years old Armanda proposes that Lidy take her place at a party for Armanda’s godchild in Zeeland – have a day off, get away from the boredom of child-rearing, enjoy the solitary pleasure of a long drive – and she will go to a party at Sjoerd’s half-sister’s home that evening. Thus Armanda sets in motion the tragedy that will haunt her for the rest of her life. Why de Moor needs to have this calculating set-up never quite comes clear, although it gives many of Armanda’s future actions a suspicious edge which skews the book in ways I’m not sure de Moor intended.
For there is a dream-like quality to this book, a sense of randomness which accompanies all disasters and fights anything intentional. The story runs in parallel lines: Armanda and Sjoerd and the Brouwers dealing with the disaster and the future without Lidy, and the rest of Lidy’s short life as she makes one understandable but bad choice, then faces the dangers that will ultimate lead her to her watery grave.
As you might guess, Lidy’s story has an almost excruciating intensity, and you begin to know this young woman so intimately that there are times while reading that it seems impossible that someone so vibrant will die. De Moor is also masterful in her portrayal of the secondary characters around Lidy, and she makes us identify with them very closely as they try to escape their terrible fate. I will never forget a chapter called ‘The Birth’ about two-thirds into the book. By now there is no doubt about the severity of the storm:
The sound of a storm defies words. Or rather, the effect it has. The world makes noises. There isn’t a moment of peace in which it isn’t creaking or rustling or banging or talking and uttering every possible nuance of lament until sometimes it even sings. Some of these noises can wait a little, but others are absolutely urgent.
Up in the attic, everyone had gradually become oblivious to the wind. The incessant hammering on their instincts, the incessant demands on their imaginative powers to foresee what could happen if they didn’t figure out a way to get out of here, had dulled their minds. . . Up in this particular attic, they were waiting for something that can be characterized, questionable perhaps but also not wrongly, as deliverance. . .
In contrast the story of those left behind has a monotony about it that is almost hard to believe, and although Armanda and her parents and Sjoerd and Nadja go through their share of suffering when it becomes clear that Lidy is gone, de Moor seems to have accomplished the task she set for herself when she refers to Schubert’s Winterreise in Wilhelm Muller’s words: “The dogs they bark, the chains they clink / The people in bed don’t blink.” The disparity in these two tales defies the true notion of the fugue in which the second part is really counterpoint to the subject part. Although the chapter in which Sjoerd goes to identify his wife (who turns out to be someone else) is stunning and memorable, a lot of the second part of this novel seems too filled with coincidence and not nearly as interesting or as strongly written. Here is Armanda brooding in church after the preacher has quoted Jeremiah’s song of sorrow and it is clear that Lidy is not coming back:
Wormwood and gall, all the wretched thoughts that do not make any soul more magnani-mous, including yours. And think of the little one who stayed at home this morning! Nadja! Yes, precisely. Should she have to grow up in such misery-ridden surroundings? God has taken your sister from us, and it is according to His plan. Stop. Pay attention. God’s cruelty is a great taboo. Let go of your narrow-minded outrage and reflect that His ways are not our ways. God encompasses even those of us who are not of unsound mind. And today He is giving you His simple commandment. Let her go. Live your life.
The truth is that I would have been happy to see a little outrage, a little more depth of feeling. At the core of these lives is an indifference that surprised me, and I felt that de Moor could have worked harder to choose details with more interest than how much these girls looked like each other or details about their sexual experiences. If they are 23 and 21 in 1953, they were teenagers during the Second World War but there is absolutely no mention of the war. In an historical novel which this is, by virtue of its starting with an event in the history of the Netherlands, it seems odd that while ruminating on the past none of these characters has any thoughts about their lives during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. Not even the girls’ parents Jan, a cardiologist, and Nadine, who certainly must have witnessed tragedies in that dire time – tragedies that might have given them a sense of kinship or comfort in their own awful predicament. The absence of the war robs the story of the emotional weight it could have had.
Since our own disaster of similar proportions (in terms of people dead) in our own country in 2001, we have all had a chance to see survivors at close range, and the weariness of these survivors did not seem believable. The fulcrum of the book is Sjoerd who, after looking for Lidy, seems to fade into a shadow as time goes by. Even the decisive scene in which Nadja discovers who her mother really was seemed bland and too matter-of-fact. Yet later, it is Nadja, alone, who achieves that “roundness” prized in characterization by E.M. Forster when she writes Armanda a letter about her sad first love and reminds the reader so poignantly of her mother.
The last part called “Responsorium” is a conversation between Lidy and Armanda, now in a nursing home, almost totally defeated by her life, and seemed an odd way to end this book that seemed so promising in the beginning. The material discussed there could have been woven into the narrative and might have made the novel more like a true fugue, leaving important questions unanswered, but giving the reader a better sense of what really went on between these sisters when they were growing up
So, when we reach the end of this somewhat unbalanced novel, we are left with some fabulous writing in spurts – like a group of Chopin Preludes or Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, or even Schubert’s Winterreise. But a truly wonderful novel has to have more power, has to be more organic and willing to explore the complex themes within it and not merely present the working out of a terrific idea. It has to resemble, if we are really lucky, a Bach fugue, or a Beethoven sonata, or a Mahler symphony.
Roberta Silman is the author of Blood Relations, a story collection, three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. She has recently completed a new novel, Secrets and Shadows. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org