"The Storm" by Margriet de Moor

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In “The Storm,” Margriet de Moor presents for our imaginations the howling, insensate destruction wrought by the freak hurricane that fell on The Netherlands in January and February 1953. Against this dark and furious backdrop she draws out the drama of two sisters who have switched places on a whim – one who drives to a relative’s birthday party in southern Holland, and one who stays behind in Amsterdam. The switch results in the “wrong” sister’s death in the epic storm.

Seldom will you find this much energy and attention to detail devoted to a single natural cataclysm – see Harris’s “Pompeii” for a possible parallel. The ill-fated sister’s (Lidy’s) odyssey to the estuaries at The Netherlands’ south end, and her trials and death there, take up half the book. Ms. de Moor impresses deeply with the depth and breadth of this part of the story. She draws it out so that it runs alongside the entire adult life of the surviving sister, Armanda. And this elegant device, the running of separate narratives for each sister: one a long protraction of horrific catastrophes that last but a few days, and the other a meditation on the surviving sister’s mixture of relief and guilt – deals with exceptional emotional clarity the journeys the sisters take. It gives the departed sister’s last days the depth and importance they deserve – we feel them the same way Armanda does.

Armanda feels like she takes on her sister’s life. She marries Lidy’s widowed husband and becomes the only mother her young niece ever knows. With a quiet grudge she suffers the slings and arrows of events she thinks of as her sister’s, especially the husband’s unfaithfulness and divorce. She does, however, become very close to her adoptive daughter. Her father becomes ill and has a brush with death, during which time Lidy goes unacknowledged. He survives, however, and becomes a near-stranger – a doctor who won’t listen to medical advice, a man-about-town who carries a sudden amount of extra girth. I think the author includes this brief episode to contrast with Armanda’s all-too-faithful adherence to Lidy’s purported life. There may be other purposes at work, but they escape me just now. The sisters achieve a fanciful rapprochement near the end of Armanda's life, and some readers may find it helpful to wrapping up the strands; for me it went in the direction of something too pat and tidy.

“The Storm” is a highly worthy piece of fiction. The unobtrusive translation from the Dutch by Carol Brown Janeway serves it in a highly effective way – it reads very naturally. A combination of harrowing, deadly detail and a fine portrait of guilt and ambivalence – all in all a heady and unique combination.
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