A message in a bottle - Harm de Jonge

Review by Bas Maliepaard
Translation: Laura Watkinson

Published in Dutch newspaper Trouw, October 30, 2010


Growing up on a working canal boat, Harm de Jonge (b. 1939) often had to say goodbye to new friends he’d made. The friendships in many of his books are also fleeting ones and, intriguingly, the best of friends can almost remain strangers.

Even before we find out how 14-year-old Tommie and Charlie, a 12-year-old girl, became pen friends, we read about the strange outcome of events. “We wrote to each other as though life was short and we were in a hurry,” he says in language that is beautiful, but perhaps a little old for a teenager. Then Charlie sends him a postcard to say she can’t write to him any longer.

Three months previously, during a trip to Amsterdam, Tommie had found Charlie’s first note, in a perfume bottle beneath a statue. Charlie asked anyone who found the message to reply to her by old-fashioned letter.

Tommie starts to send Charlie letters from the village near Groningen where his parents’ boat is moored. The reader only gets to see Charlie’s lively responses, which are full of fantastic fabrications and remarkable facts, for example, that a human being has the same number of bones as a pomegranate has seeds. De Jonge is a master at collecting such curious facts and using them to suit his purpose. Occasionally he may get a little carried away, but it gives his books a distinctive, spicy flavour.

Charlie also tells Tommie that Mayan warriors are searching for her, because she is actually a princess. “Whatever you can imagine can actually exist, because otherwise you couldn’t imagine it,” she writes later. This is one of the key sentences of the book, which could be described as an ode to the imagination.

Tommie can understand why Charlie stretches the truth to make the world seem better than it is: her mother has just died. But he wants to know what is true and what isn’t. Particularly when he falls in love with his pen-friend princess and finds out that she doesn’t actually live at the address where he’s been sending the letters. Following that discovery, the story becomes something of a detective novel. Finally, there’s a credible explanation for Charlie’s disappearance and Tommie gets to the bottom of most of the mysteries. But he also writes, in his only letter in the book: “You dream what you can’t do and if you believe what you dream you’re happy. It’s that simple.”

This book is only available in Dutch. Contact for translation rights: publishing house Unieboek | Het Spectrum, Houten, The Netherlands.

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