Will (2016): Jeroen Olyslaegers


For Proust, the key to memory was a madeleine: for the elderly Wilfried Wils, it’s a snowfall, which carpets the streets around his home in Antwerp. Walking through the city, he remembers how it was in wartime, and decides that it’s time to set down his story, addressing it to an estranged great-grandson. He hopes that this unknown reader will listen and, if not forgive him, then at least understand. The problem, Will knows, is that people like their protagonists to be heroes: the kind of men and women who place principles above their own safety, and protect those less fortunate than themselves. But that isn’t the story that Will has to tell. His is a tale of survival, of self-interest and self-preservation in a world where all certainties have been ripped away; and it isn’t just the tale of one man, but of a whole city. Olyslaegers’s disturbing novel is based around real events in wartime Antwerp, and inspired by the experiences of the author’s own family: his grandfather, who was a Nazi collaborator, and his aunt, the mistress of an SS officer. If it’s unsettling, that’s largely because it forces us to think very hard about how we ourselves would survive under occupation. Would we choose to be heroes, as we’d like to believe? Or would we, too, follow prevailing winds in this ‘life on the razor’s edge‘?

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The Angel Maker (2005): Stefan Brijs


The tiny Belgian village of Wolfheim is galvanised when Victor Hoppe, son of the late GP, returns home from his medical studies in Bonn. Why has the prodigal suddenly returned to his father’s old house? Does he mean to take up his father’s mantle as the local doctor? Why is he so standoffish with the locals? And, most curious of all, what is the story behind the three motherless infant children he brings with him, each with an identical severe cleft palate? In this disturbing modern morality tale, Stefan Brijs tells the story of a modern Prometheus: a brilliant man fatally undermined by his own lack of empathy. By chance, I came to this soon after reading John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, which gave it an even stranger flavour: it felt, at times, like a cross between Frankenstein and The Midwich Cuckoos. But Stefan Brijs’s novel is more disturbing than either of these because it is so plausible, and because there is such an ironic contrast between the godlike dreams of its protagonist and the sheltered world in which he tries to bring them about.

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In the Shadow of the Ark (2001): Anne Provoost


When I saw this novel tucked away in a local charity shop, I pounced immediately. How could I resist a story about the Ark so soon after ferreting deep into the history of its legend? Originally published in Dutch in 2001 (the author is Flemish), it has been translated into English by John Nieuwenhuizen and takes us into a strange and foreign world of fishermen and nomads, boat-builders and prophets. And, at the heart of the tale, is the rumour of a great boat being built in the middle of a desert by a crazy old man, and the young woman who travels with her family to answer the call for workers.

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