Barbed Wire - Derk Visser

Review by Bas Maliepaard
Translation: Laura Watkinson

Published in Dutch newspaper Trouw, September 3, 2011


There are few YA novels about unskilled young people in grim, impoverished neighbourhoods. But Derk Visser really seems to have a preference for characters from disadvantaged backgrounds. After his sharp novellas Patatje oorlog and Landjepik, he has once again chosen to portray this kind of teenager in his critically acclaimed Prikkeldraad, but for the first time at greater length.

Everything rings true about the raw image that Visser evokes, without the slightest hint of contempt. Fifteen-year-old Chelsea lives with her rebellious sister Jewel and their quarrelling parents in a flat above a bar, which their dad has been forced to close as a result of the smoking ban. The run-down local supermarket, where her friends sit at the tills, chewing gum, is destined for the same fate. All of the hopelessness and faded glory surrounding the family is drowned in cheap beer: ten six-packs a week.

Chelsea’s coming of age takes place in this bleak setting. Not in the intellectual manner that we’re accustomed to in so much teen literature, but more in keeping with her working-class existence. She flirts with her sister’s boyfriend, a sewage worker who rather roughly takes her virginity on the kitchen table, and she dreams of a different life, even though she herself doesn’t know quite what that might mean. When she does reflect upon herself, it’s often unobtrusive, as when she suddenly starts wondering why adults never skip and then realises that she has stopped skipping too. It’s a telling observation.

The story takes a dramatic turn when Dad falls down the stairs and ends up in a coma. Chelsea feels terribly guilty, mainly because she was the only witness and everyone suspects her of having pushed him. The pressure drives her out of the house and into the arms of the loser Micky, who, as befits the X Factor generation, predicts a great future for her as the new Dusty Springfield.

The scenes that follow are both sad and hilarious: Micky acts as though he’s the manager of a big star and even arranges a performance in a grimy football canteen, which can only end in failure. And again there’s that sense of poignancy: Chelsea does not truly think that everything’s going to change, but she wants to believe that it will, even though she really knows better.

Visser writes everything in direct, blunt language, uncompromising as only few writers dare to be, but he also knows how to move the reader, as when Chelsea tries desperately to bring her father out of his coma, for example. With this book, Visser has proven that he is one of the best YA writers in the Netherlands.
Derk Visser(b. 1959) works in child welfare, and is also building up an outstanding, caustic and honest body of work as a writer, in which he courageously portrays young people in a true-to-life manner. He made his debut with Patchouli, but his career really took off with the novellas Patatje oorlog and Landjepik. Critics view Prikkeldraad as his best book so far.

Lees deze recensie in het Nederlands.

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