THE STORM by Margriet de Moor
“Do you know what I sometimes still think? Lidy’s just gone for a day, and she’s relying on me to live her life for her, all organized and proper, and that’s exactly what I’m damn well doing.”
Review by Kirstin Merrihew (APR 12, 2010)
It seemed such a harmless, even playful thing: in the Netherlands, two sisters, two years apart and nearly identical in appearance, would trade places one weekend. Armanda, would stay home. looking after a toddler niece and attending a party that evening with her brother-in-law. Lidy, would travel south by auto and ferry to Zierikzee to give a birthday gift to Armanda’s goddaughter. Perhaps no one would even notice the difference?
What sounds like a comedy of misidentification isn’t really, because both sisters quickly ‘fess up to being themselves rather than impersonating each other. What matters in Margriet de Moor’s new novel is that a sisterly prank proposed by Armanda results in each young woman stepping into the other’s life. And for twenty-three-year-old Lidy, the older of the two sisters, this fateful role swap is actually a permanent good-bye to her life. “If anyone had said to her that with Nadja held tight and safe in her arms she should take a good look all around because her farewell was a final one, she would have known deep in her heart this was possible at any moment in life, but she wouldn’t have believed it.”
The date is January 31, 1953, and that night a catastrophic flood engulfed the province of Zeeland (where Zierikzee is located), killing many hundreds outright and leaving many unaccounted for. Later, the official national toll of that North Sea flood would be nearly two thousand people in all. The Storm: A Novel follows Lidy as her ferry encounters such rough seas that it will in fact be the last transport for several days from Numansdorp to Zijpe. As she arrives at the Hotel Kirke in Schouwen-Duivelan, natural warning signs are all around, but the last great flooding of dikes had occurred in 1906 and somehow people just didn’t think it could happen again…to them. But it did, and so interspersed in this novel de Moor relates the grueling last hours of Lidy and others who, like her, at first found some kind of shelter but were ultimately swept out into the storm. Perhaps unluckier than those drowned right away, they didn’t die immediately, but finally succumbed to exposure, exhaustion, and the water. In Lidy’s case the novel turns almost poetic: “Some living force was coming at her, constantly shape-shifting, in curves, and wings, and foam, and spray; it was the question that silenced all life’s other questions. Almighty God, merciful God…” Lidy’s exact end wasn’t known, but the storm consumed her.
Armanda, who by her godchild’s invitation should have been the one imperiled by the raging sea, lives many decades beyond her sister, and The Storm proceeds to drop in on her and her loved ones as time presses on. She, the survivor, sometimes holds internal conversations with Lidy, and during one of those she states,”I am Armanda, the sister of a В woman who was very young when she drove away one morning from a happy home and sadly never came back. Since that time she lives inside me…Good, so, when I was twenty-eight and then thirty, I enlarged my sister’s family, which had consisted until then of a husband, a wife, and a little daughter, with an additional daughter and son….I maintain that the only person who ever really knew me was Sjoerd, and you, Lidy, have the absolute right to feel offended that he drew the line at our menage-a-trois. I’m sorry, but I obviously didn’t manage your husband very well.”
So Armanda marries Sjoerd too and tries to carry on in Lidy’s place. Here, then, we have one physical body left and, in a sense, two occupants. This prevailing theme recurs in variation in Armanda’s story about her father’s death late in the novel. Actually his two deaths. First he “dies” peacefully of pancreatic cancer with his family surrounding him, but then he appears to recover. However, he isn’t the same anymore. He seems to be a different person, with changed habits and attitudes. Perhaps he is what is called a “walk-in.” Then he dies “again,” alone this time. The body is a container, Armanda thinks; it can exchange occupants or contain more than one tenant. That, at least, is how she would like to console herself over the loss of Lidy.
The Storm is a tribute and memorial to those who lost their lives in the 1953 flood, vividly imagining how they were overcome, either quickly or after determined struggle. The novel is also a study of the effects of grief on a family that never was 100% certain what happened to Lidy. And it is a pondering on metaphysics; one of the chapters is entitled “Dreams and Ghosts,” which encapsulates how both Lidy and Armanda sometimes grasp at the world and their tentative existence: “And like someone who in a chance moment recognizes that the heavens are the eternal, everlasting, primeval landscape of our minds, she said, ‘Yes, we say it’s beautiful, but just think of everything that lies behind it all, you know?’ ”
The translation into English by Carol Brown Janeway includes some beautiful and almost transcendent passages. On the other hand, it can be less-than-easy reading. Several times during the novel, I wished I were able to read Dutch so I could determine whether only the translation feels somewhat awkward or whether de Moor transmitted the same inapproachable quality. This is, after all, a book about a storm, and so perhaps the feeling of floating around the prose rather than being anchored in it is entirely intentional. I can admire that desire to shape the writing to the subject, but the style nevertheless tends to be distracting and lessens the ability to fully engage with the characters and their histories.
So, The Storm feels somewhat alien (not necessarily a disadvantage for a work by a foreign author?). But once involved in it, the novel is more than the stories of two sisters; it is a rumination on what constitutes “being,” how far one can take alikeness, whether the veil of death is permeable, and whether psychological health includes a sense of “the other inside.” At one point the narrative says “everyone always said they were exactly alike.” Armanda stoutly replies, “Absolutely not.” She adds, “We distinguished between the two of us the way only sisters can. We knew it.” She continues, “So now my past has been exchanged for hers, while her future has passed to me, there’s this veil of bottomless sadness, though naturally I try to ignore it.” A futile endeavor, to ignore that which absorbs the self.
Finally, a side note of sorts: recently another novel called Losing Charlotte, by Heather Clay, was published. It too deals with two sisters and the toll on one when the other dies unexpectedly and traumatically. Although these two books are very different from on another in many respects, if readers find The Storm compelling, they might be interested in Clay’s book too. Both volumes are published by Knopf.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 2 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Knopf; 1 edition (March 9, 2010)|
|AMAZON PAGE:||The Storm|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Official website (in Dutch)|
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