Early last year I read Marijke Schermer’s quietly powerful Love, If That’s What It Is about the breakdown of a long marriage. I hadn’t twigged that it was her debut otherwise I might have been nervous about second novel syndrome when I spotted Breakwater on NetGalley. Like her first. Schermer’s new novel explores a marriage, this one with a shocking secret kept for so long there seems no going back until a thoughtless act triggers traumatic memories than can no longer be buried.
It was over: the hole in time, the vacuity of paradise, the idyll.
Emilia and Burch are rushing to get to the theatre in Amsterdam, getting the children to bed before driving from their isolated home outside the village dike. At the end of the performance, they become separated. Emilia wanders off to the bar, takes her drink outside and leans over the balcony. When someone grabs her from behind, she lets herself go limp, falling to the ground, shocking her friend Frank who thought he was playing a harmless prank. She collects herself sufficiently to convince Burch she’s simply tired but when they find their home in disarray she’s convinced of catastrophe. Frank’s behaviour has triggered memories of a brutal assault, a rape by a stranger that she suffered just weeks into her relationship with Burch, which she chose to keep from him. Over the next few months, Emilia begins to unravel while Burch alternates between sympathy and exasperation. When the rainy season arrives, Burch refuses to leave their freshly renovated home despite its lack of defence, ensuring the safety of their two children before the floodwaters break through. As they wait it out, a revelation is made that shakes Emilia’s faith in their marriage.
Don’t tell, she thinks, never tell. That bubble of cruelty and pain and humiliation must never be punctured and allowed to seep into the rest of her life.
There are echoes of #MeToo in Schermer’s novel, the movement that seemed to consume the western world’s attention before it switched to other things. Frank’s thoughtless grab would have been discomfiting to any women let alone one who had suffered such an attack and the behaviour of Emilia’s friend and colleague towards their intern is inexcusable although her reaction offers hope of progress. Emilia’s decision not to tell Burch about the rape is based on protecting their relationship but it doesn’t acknowledge the damage done to her, nor the effort of keeping a secret she had begun to feel might be better told. Hers is a powerful, graphic narrative written with the same compassion and empathy that characterised Love, If That’s What It Is. It’s an impressive novel whose ending left me with much to think about.
World Editions: London 9781642861259 192 pages Paperback (Read via NetGalley)