This week's 'Dutch reading' has taken me to the port city (and second largest in The Netherlands) of Rotterdam. Shadow Sister by Simone van der Vlugt (Schaduwzuster in Dutch, translated by Michele Hutchison) is a wonderfully suspenseful tale of psychological intrigue that has you guessing until the very end. I wasn't necessarily surprised by the resolution but I hadn't really expected it either. I love stories of doppelgangers and while the two women telling this story are identical twin sisters, so not exactly the same thing, you'll get an idea by the title of the book that something is amiss between the two who share the same face. Secrets and lies. Those are always two good ingredients in a suspenseful story, along with lots of red herrings, to keep a reader turning the pages and this one has lots of all three.
Whenever an author chooses to let the main character, or in this case characters, tell the story in first person I am always immediately on guard. Can they be believed or even trusted? There is an intimacy established right from the start, but . . . You are inside the mind of someone you want to like and be sympathetic towards (I always do, at least initially), but somewhere along the way you do wonder if what they are telling you is only in their imagination or an accurate portrayal of events.
Lydia and Elisa may share the same physical features but really they couldn't be more different. Lydia is the elder by fifteen minutes and as an 'older' sister she is one to take charge and perhaps dominates (though she hastens to say she has always 'taken care' of her sister) Elisa. She is tenderhearted, however, can't say no to anyone and wants nothing more than to help others. Happily married with one daughter, her husband Raoul would like her to give up her job and help out in his software company. Lydia is a dedicated teacher and she cares about her students, but they are a challenging group. The college she teaches at has a large number of immigrant students with the sort of problems you would expect them to have living in (or perhaps better to say between) two cultures.
"I'm often asked what it's like being a twin. It's a curious question. It's not that I'm unaware of how unusual it is to have an identical twin, but other people's reactions always remind me of how disarming our likeness is. I do see the physical resemblance, of course, but we are so different in nearly everything else. For example, Elisa is sportier than me. I rarely wear trousers, and she rarely wears a skirt. I'm extroverted, energetic and spontaneous; Elisa is relaxed and self-contained. I like shopping and going out, she'd rather go for a long walk in the countryside, and I could go on . . . "
Elisa, on the other hand, is artistic and more of a romantic. She has her own photography business and lives alone. Her closest friends don't quite pass muster with Lydia, but as they have helped her through some darker times Elisa wouldn't think of giving them up. Whatever their differences, though, Lydia and Elisa share a close bond as all twins likely have. They share that sixth sense about each other even.
The story is narrated in alternating sections with each woman telling bits to create a complete picture of events. There is a pivotal moment in the book early on, so the narration is both before and after the event (one sister in the 'now' of the story and the other in the 'after' giving both sides of what has happened). It's something of a shocker to be honest but the story suffers not one jot for having such an early climactic moment--it only adds to the tension knowing what is coming but not knowing why exactly. At the very beginning of the story, the very first paragraph, something happens which is the impetus for the psychological drama that follows.
"All of a sudden he's got a knife. The flash as he draws it is so unexpected fear paralyses me. I try to speak, but the sound dies in my throat. I can only stare at the blade glinting in the light streaming through the classroom."
It's a clash of cultures. Lydia wears a skirt that any other Dutch woman would consider modest despite its shorter length but which one of her students finds offensive. A young man who is Muslim and is used to his sisters and classmates in headscarves with covered arms and legs. When he lashes out, Lydia knows her response is wrong which puts him on the defensive and now must worry about an angry youth ready to take his problems and frustrations out on her.
Simone van der Vlugt is called "Holland's Queen of Crime'' according to a quote on the cover and she does indeed tell a good story. She comes at it from two very different angles and very slowly reveals the truth while at the same time sharing each woman's perception of each other and their friends and family. And like so many good contemporary crime novels these days manages to shed a little light on social issues of the culture.
Several years ago I read van der Vlugt's The Reunion and really liked it, too. Now I have her newest, Safe as Houses, which I am sorely tempted to begin reading. I told myself I was going to finish The Apothecary's House first before picking up any other book, but I couldn't avoid the lure of a new book from my Dutch Lit pile, and I have wanted to get back to Grijpstra and de Gier ever since meeting them in a collection of short stories, so Outsider in Amsterdam it is. Perhaps next week I will devote all (or nearly all) my reading time to my Dutch books. I have also wanted to begin reading Hella Haasse's The Tea Lords (have had it at the ready only have wanted to not begin reading until I knew I had a chunk of time to devote to it to get into the story properly). I'm pleased with my reading project so far--I've read four books so far (all translated from Dutch) which includes a chunky classic (will be writing about Eline Vere next week).
By the way, the photo at the top of the post is from the Wikipedia and was taken from the Euromast, which featured in the story. Lots more to share next week!