Esther Gerritsen’s Craving is one of the first titles to be published by World Editions set up with the aim of bringing world literature to a wider audience, starting off with a fistful, of Dutch novels. Up to now I suspect most of us, me included, have had little or no contact with Dutch writing beyond Herman Koch’s much lauded The Dinner. Craving comes with a glowing endorsement from Mr Koch on its jacket, a handy indicator as to who might enjoy this darkly comic novel about death and family life.
Elisabeth is dying: we know that from the start. As she walks to the pharmacy to pick up her morphine she spots her daughter Coco across the street. Elisabeth wonders whether to tell Coco her news. They haven’t seen each other for a while and it may be a little awkward – not quite the moment – but heeding her doctor’s exhortations she hails Coco and after a desultory exchange blurts it out. Coco is only a little nonplussed, cycling off strangely pleased with the drama of her news and how important it makes her feel. Elisabeth carries on. This exchange sets the tone for Gerritsen’s unsettling, powerful novel. Coco spills the beans to her stepmother and father, Wilbert, with whom she spent most of her childhood; uses her news to manipulate her middle-aged boyfriend; then decides she should move in to look after her mother, more as an act of defiance aimed at Wilbert than from a desire to care for Elisabeth. As her mother deteriorates, so Coco becomes increasingly chaotic.
Gerritsen threads Elisabeth’s memories in and out of Coco’s unravelling and her own decline: her decision to lock the eighteen-month-old Coco in her room as means of protecting the furniture; Coco’s plunge through a glass screen door, aged five, and her own odd reaction to it; her detached ability to scan the rhythms of Wilbert’s remarks during sex. It’s never quite clear whether Elisabeth has Asperger’s but neither social skills nor empathy are amongst her strong points. While she’s always been at ease with her picture-framing colleagues, family life and marriage have proved to be something of an emotional minefield. Meanwhile Coco tries to fill her own gaping void with food, rough sex with strangers and the self-importance gained from the emotional drama playing out at home. No one manages to connect with anyone else in this fractured family – Elisabeth’s most satisfying relationship is with her boss. Not an easy read, then, but certainly a striking one handled with great skill. I’ll be interested to see what World Editions comes up with next.