How do you become the person you want to be? This is the challenge that faces thirty-year-old Jonathan when he is released from prison, acquitted on the basis of insufficient evidence. He returns to his elderly mother and their isolated house on the edge of the dunes, one of only two houses left standing in the midst of demolition. Soon the council will rehouse them on a new estate, but Jonathan isn’t looking forward to it. Change upsets him. And so he tries to settle back into his old life: long walks on the dunes with the dog; watching TV with his mother; fishing in the ponds. He wants to be good. But, as summer thickens over their dead-end town and the mercury rises, Jonathan finds his calm unsettled by the bright, creative, clever little girl next door. Sometimes instinct can undermine even the best laid plans.
Bold, brave and unsettling, this can’t have been an easy book to pitch and it makes for uncomfortable but compelling reading. There isn’t the slightest element of sensation. On the contrary, for most of the book virtually nothing happens: it is a character study, a series of almost cinematic vignettes of bleak, abandoned houses; gulls screeching above deserted sands; grey waters and distant container ships; sweat beading on a face. This is the kind of place where dreams go to die. Schilperoord’s writing (translated by David Colmer) has a stark, unemotional elegance that suits this enervating loneliness. She draws us into Jonathan’s mind, inviting us to see the world as he sees it, making us party to his struggles. As a criminal psychologist by trade, she must spend her life trying to make the same kind of imaginative leaps: to find a way, through a spark of common understanding, to help people like Jonathan who dream of finding an easier way to exist in the world.
The tench of the title is a fine, large specimen that Jonathan discovers in his favourite freshwater pond on the dunes. Spotting that it is injured, he takes it home to his aquarium and prepares to nurse it back to health. He’s good at caring for things. He wants to help, to make things better. And, although he’s initially suspicious of little Elke from the house next door, he begins to wonder whether he couldn’t help her as well. The book deals in grey areas of morality, blurred boundaries and good intentions gone wrong. It thrums with tension, not necessarily because of what happens, but because of what could happen. And, all the time, the tench is there: a creature of darkness, swimming low at the bottom of the pond, rarely seen but always present, waiting to be lured up to the surface.
Schilperoord’s book has something of the Greek tragedy about it: the man full of hubris, brought down by a fatal flaw. Yet it is also compassionate, without ever making excuses for its protagonist. In a world of increasingly sensationalist thrillers, it makes its impact in a much more subtle and powerful way: by inviting us to put aside the notion of clear-cut right and wrong, and to seek to understand, rather than condemn. Austere, powerful and thought-provoking, it is a book that deserves to be read and one that lingers with you, simmering, for many hours afterwards.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review