Mother number zero - Marjolijn Hof

Review by Bas Maliepaard
Translation: Laura Watkinson

Published in Dutch newspaper Trouw, January 24, 2009


When Fejzo was eight, he had to fill in the boxes on a form at school to make his family tree. There was only one box for a mother. "I'm adopted," Fejzo told his teacher, so she allowed him to draw another box for his other mother. He called his biological mother "Mother 1" and his adoptive mother "Mother 2". "I regretted it straightaway. My mum who's my mum now had suddenly become number two. I quickly rubbed it all out and filled in the boxes again. In the first box I wrote: Mother 0. And in the second box I put: Mother 1."

Since then - Fejzo is now three years older - he has referred to the woman who gave birth to him as "Mother Number Zero". This wonderfully inventive phrase is reminiscent of the original twists and turns in the mind of Kiki, the protagonist of "Against the Odds", Marjolijn Hof's debut. Hof captures all of Fejzo's ambivalent emotions in the name "Mother Number Zero": he wants to be fair to both mothers, without denying that one of them is just a little more important than the other. Zero comes before one, but one is something and zero is nothing. Fortunately, Hof doesn't feel the need to explain this to the reader. She does, however, point out that Fejzo prefers not to use the term "biological mother", because it reminds him of washing powder. Hof's sense of humour ensures that the story has a cheerful atmosphere.

What Fejzo likes doing best of all is sitting on a bench in the park drawing birds. One day, he meets Maud in the park. This encounter seems a little manufactured, as though it's designed with the aim of setting the main narrative in motion: another precocious child who likes sitting in the park by herself strikes up a conversation with Fejzo and her questions get him thinking about his unusual past. Hof could perhaps have thought this scenario trough a little more carefully.

However, what comes next is both plausible and easy to identify with: following his conversation with Maud, Fejzo starts to wonder whether he inherited his talent for drawing from Mother Number Zero. He decides to look for her, but he's not entirely sure that he wants to find her. She might be a drunkard or she might suddenly decide that she wants to have him back!

Although the book is not an autobiography, Marjolijn Hof based her story on her own experiences as an adopted child. This can be seen in the great precision with which she sketches Fejzo's inner development and thought processes. Rather than making Fejzo's tale a sensational story with a spectacular finish, Hof keeps it wonderfully small and detailed.

Contact for translation rights: publishing house Querido, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

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