In his first two novels, Jaap Robben keeps things small. His debut Birch (2014) takes place on an almost uninhabited island, where a 9-year-old boy must rely on his mother after his father drowns. summer coat (2018) is about a 13-year-old boy who lives in a caravan with his father, a clumsy hustler who increasingly gets into trouble. How do you live with decency when you grow up with a parent who doesn’t know how to do that? How do you survive in such a small world where you are not yet in control of yourself? In both novels, Robben cleverly developed these questions into an oppressive story cast in austere language.
Twilight Life is cut from a different cloth. The story is told by an 81-year-old woman who looks back on a life that can be called ordinary in almost every way. Frieda Tendeloo did not grow up in isolation, but was born and raised in a big city (Nijmegen), was raised by both parents in a family rich in children, worked in a flower shop, married a nice man, had a son with him and stands now to be a grandmother.
But then, against all odds, her husband Louis dies before she does. His death cuts short, also for the reader: ‘All that Louis ever was, all that I ever loved, is a dusty pile of ashes (…). Everything Louis has washed, brushed, flossed, combed and cared for all his life, everything he has been, is here for me among the blades of grass. (…) Ready to blow away.’
Louis’ death also cuts into another aspect. Combined with the pregnancy of Frieda’s daughter-in-law, it reveals a huge trauma that had been lurking beneath her average life as a married woman and devoted mother for over sixty years. Frieda (nickname: Ietje) had her mood now and then (especially after the family had once again visited her parents) and then there was no country to sail with, but no one to look for anything further.
The trauma was caused by the dramatic end of a secret relationship she had in 1963 with a married man, Otto Drehmann. He was over ten years older than her, but you wouldn’t call him a seasoned scumbag. He’s too clumsy for that, just to name a few, the first time they do it together. You could also say it like this, in the style of the novel: just as Frieda discovers the woman in herself in him, he discovers in her the ‘other man’ in himself.
But Otto will not leave his wife. ‘I just seem to have more love in me, for both’, he justifies his attitude. Of course, that doesn’t sit well with Frieda: ‘I was allowed to lose myself in him, but he could never completely lose himself in me.’ This becomes painfully obvious when she becomes pregnant by him. To her astonishment, he sees the fruit in her womb not as their child, but as her child. His marriage, his job at college, his position in the church, he doesn’t want to give it all up for a new life with her.
Not only Otto, but also her parents leave Frieda. Robben describes the misery she then ends up in with Dickens-like appeal, and it produces piercing pages. The passages about Louis’ death and Frieda’s move to a nursing home are also impressive. And there are sentences in it Twilight Life that stay with you, like this, which Frieda thinks of when the receptionist at the home tells her that she looks beautiful again: ‘At my age, they mainly compliment the clothes we’ve put on or what the hairdresser thinks the hair. managed to make.’
But Robben’s new novel lacks the ubiquitous suppression of Birch and Summer coat. It has to do with the narrative perspective of twilight life, it is emphatically that of an adult, while in Robben’s first two novels you have the idea of experiencing the events together with the young protagonist. And in general, Twilight Life told in appropriate style, but often no more than that. And sometimes less than that, as in this kitschy passage: ‘He hardly had to touch me between my legs before I felt the smoldering embers being blown to a glow.’ Also the often used exclamation mark ‘What the hell (…). Oh my, right.’ and variants of this are out of place. In moments like these, Twilight Life something Frieda is definitely not: a bit gloomy.
Jaap Robben: Twilight Life. De Geus; 309 pages; €23.99.