In her debut novel, Corinne Heyrman stays close to herself ★★★☆☆

‘I’m making a radio documentary of everything I don’t understand,’ says the narrator The beginning and its infinity. She wants to understand why her grandfather ends up in the psychiatric ward of a hospital after his retirement. She wants to understand what he is going through. And she wants to understand if there is a genetic link between his mental problems and hers (she ended up in the same hospital as an anorexic patient years earlier).

And that’s why she’s making a radio documentary. She records conversations with her mother, grandmother, grandfather and his psychiatrist. She listens to her grandfather’s old cassette tapes, hoping to “hear back what made my grandfather so confused, how it came about when it started.” And she even learns to play the trumpet, her grandfather’s instrument, to get closer to him.

Corinne Heyrman has a lot of herself in the narrator The beginning and its infinity stopped: the fact that she is the child of a donor father, the hospitalization as an anorexic patient at 17, the training at the theater academy in Antwerp and the insane grandfather (whom, unlike her main character, she never knew).

She also stayed close to home when she made a radio documentary, the basis for her debut novel, and it seems to be working out just fine. The views of those involved are woven together in a natural way. And a documentary requires a clear conclusion.

No satisfactory answer

Only the latter proves to be difficult. Her grandfather’s recovery, or even death, might have been a foregone conclusion. Or an answer to the narrator’s question ‘how is it that he and I carry a weight within us that now and then pulls us all the way to the ground’. But psychiatry is not a field that deals with clear roundings. No one ever leaves a psychiatric hospital truly cured, vulnerabilities remain, and after two centuries of discussion and research, it is still impossible to say what the respective contributions of genes, experiences, and circumstances are. Heyrman therefore does not get satisfactory answers to his questions. Of course, that doesn’t have to stand in the way of a good story. And she can definitely write, tell a story.

This is worrying for another reason. The emphasis on the grandfather leads to sidetracks – descriptions of his fellow patients, visits to the marching band he was once a part of – that add little, while the story of the grandfather’s depression and panic ultimately remains rather shallow. It jeopardizes the most compelling story in the book – about anorexia. Heyrman is the most convincing in this, and she knows how to bring the reader very close to the experiences of the anorexic patient, to her inability to eat, her fear of relapse and even her fear of getting rid of the disease completely (‘because my fear would lack a name because it would free up more time and space in my head and my days, which could seem scary and empty to me’).

Panic over a stamp

She writes about the embarrassment of her eating behavior when she is with her grandparents, who have been through the war. About the alliance of the thin girls in the psychiatric ward, who taught each other tricks to lose calories despite the tight regime. About the endless patience with which her mother went shopping with her in the period before her hospitalization (the calories in each product had to be checked and compared). And about the dramatic time when her mother was full and more or less forced her to lick the stamp (with all the calories it entails) that was supposed to be on an envelope. It resulted in almost blind panic: running to put the letter in the post, running to the park and sitting there in the grass to scratch bloody pieces of skin under her collarbone: ‘Something had to come out of my body, and I did ‘ didn’t care whether it was from without or from within. The new weight had to go away’.

Heyrman describes these scenes visually, then wittily, then painfully and at times heartbreakingly. That had been topic enough.

Corinne Heyrman: The Beginning and Its Endlessness. The labor press; 232 pages; €20.

Image The Workers’ Press

Leave a Comment