Heivisj's Heaven - Benny Lindelauf

Review by Bas Maliepaard
Translation: Laura Watkinson

Published in Dutch newspaper Trouw, May 22, 2010


Just outside a village in Limburg (the southernmost of the twelve provinces of the Netherlands) stands a house with the name of Nine Open Arms, so called because if its nine residents open their arms wide, they can hug all the way around it. Fing lives there in the late 1930s with her four brothers, two sisters, their dad and Grandma Mei. It’s an almost fairytale place that is brimming with stories. And often it’s not entirely clear whether these stories come from the imagination of Grandma Mei and the children or whether they really happened.

But in this touching sequel to Lindelauf’s magic-realist novel 'Nine Open Arms', no one gets to escape “actual reality”. The German invasion puts an end to the relatively carefree childhood of Fing and her sisters Jes and Muulke, who form a very close trio. “When the war came, it felt as though time had been on a slack rope that was now pulled tight with a reverberating twang.”

Fing gets a job with the Cigar King, working as a maid and a playmate for Liesl, his wife’s annoying German cousin. Only when the persecution of the Jews becomes more intense and the girl suddenly disappears does Fing realise what Liesl was doing in Limburg and why she behaved so strangely.

One great thing about this book is that it does not only show the “spectacular” side of the war. Life in the village goes on as normal. You could even say that this is more of a coming-of-age novel than a classic war novel. The story is actually all about Fing becoming an adult.

Lindelauf describes, very precisely and sympathetically, how Fing enters into puberty and separates herself from her sisters. She finds it childish now when they say goodnight to the ghosts in the house. Her periods start, she falls in love and she finally realises: I’m not a child anymore.

Few writers can portray their characters in such a breathtakingly realistic and original way as Lindelauf. Take tough old Grandma Mei, who unflappably runs the family home. “She treats life like a troublesome toddler,” Lindelauf writes. And when Grandma Mei actually shows that she’s finding things difficult: “As always, her sorrow seemed like a borrowed sorrow. Like an expensive frock that she had to return in good condition.”

Beautiful thoughts like this appear on almost every page of this outstanding novel, evocatively sprinkled with Yiddish, German and Limburg dialect, making you see the world and life in a new light. And that’s the power of great literature.

This book is only available in Dutch. Contact for translation rights: publishing house Querido, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

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