A Heart of Stone

A Heart of Stone by Renate DorresteinRenate Dorrestein
translation by Hester Velmans
Viking ($23.95)

by Deborah J. Safran

According to the back jacket copy, Renate Dorrestein is one of Holland's best-loved novelists. If her writing reads as smoothly in its native Dutch as it does in this English translation, it's easy to see why—her words are liquid and flowing, and they make A Heart of Stone horrifically entrancing.

Twenty-five years have passed and Ellen van Bemis is still haunted by a tragedy that befell her family and left her and her brother Carlos orphans. Now pregnant with her first child, her thoughts turn to her mother; she desperately wishes to understand what really happened and put those ghosts to rest. When she notices while flipping through the paper one day that her childhood home is up for sale, temptation proves too great: she decides that this is the perfect place to sort out her past.

It all started just before her twelfth birthday, when her parents announced the impending arrival of their fifth child. Ellen sensed there wasn't enough room for another child in the over-flowing house. Given the opportunity to name the unborn baby, she settled upon Ida "because it was the ugliest name I could think of, Ida rhymed with spider, and if you twisted the letters around and added a few more, you got diarrhea. How she'd be tormented, later, at school!"

And tormented she was, beyond what Ellen could have imagined. What follows is the slow, delicate process of unraveling how her parents and three of her siblings met their end before the unfortunate Ida even reached her first birthday.

The writing weaves seamlessly between the past and present, with a word or phrase from one story leading us into another and back again. The novel is almost doughy in its progression; it teases the reader with brief revelations, only to pull back on itself. The chapters are titled with photo captions, as if Ellen were sitting with the family album resting on her swollen belly, mentally traveling from vignette to vignette. A "Daddy's little girl," his words continue to echo inside her head: "The third child is the cement" and "Loyalty . . . [is] not always easy. You have to learn to choose." Through these repeated phrases, she finally understands what happened and why she survives it.

The ending, though slightly predictable, doesn't tie things up in a neat little bow. It's good to leave some issues unresolved, of course, but it seems strange that Ellen never ponders the whereabouts of her surviving brother. Adopted at age four, Carlos van Bemis is no more alive to Ellen than Kes, Billie, or Ida. And why are we introduced to Ellen's ex-husband, Thijis, at all? Their divorce offers no insight to her mental anguish; his existence only provides the opportunity for Ellen to tell why she became a pathologist (a profession which seems only too appropriate). These issues are minor, however, and do not detract from the beauty of the story. And beautiful it is—it's amazing how such an ugly tale can be so well told.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001