"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.

"In the Company of Angels" by Thomas E. Kennedy

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Place yourself confidently in Thomas E. Kennedy’s hands and allow yourself to be held in thrall by “In the Company of Angels.” Follow each character’s journey from his or her demons – be they torture, abuse, confusion, resentment or rage – to sweet redemption. The author knits these dramatis personae tightly together in their inner progress, and through a simple, character-driven plot, makes each journey interdependent. Mr. Kennedy’s treatment – oblique when it needs to be but otherwise quite straightforward – supports the many issues tastefully and beautifully. Oh, where to start in praising this work?

In the first of Mr. Kennedy’s Copenhagen Quartet (the second book, “Falling Sideways,” is due this year) we meet Bernardo (known as Nardo), a victim of a repressive South American regime who has immigrated to Denmark. Dr. Kristensen tries to walk him away from his horrific life and into the light of the world. Beautiful, full-hearted Michela battles the effects of her frightening past, as her current boorish boyfriend threatens to perpetuate them. Each narrative is gripping in its own right; get ready for a grand reward when they merge.

Mr. Kennedy piques my speculation by narrating the entire book in the third person, with the exception of those passages devoted to Dr. Kristensen. Those he renders in the first person, possibly casting the rest of the novel as events the doctor witnesses. He lets Nardo’s problems get to him a bit and begins to get burned out on life. He comes close to shunting Nardo off to a lower-level professional because he thinks they – doctor and patient – are wasting time and money. Are we to join Kristensen in these beliefs? Are we to accept them as the author’s viewpoint? Clear answers to these questions are by no means necessary to appreciating this book. This piece has an atmospheric quality to it: descriptions of the long days of sun and of the North’s tepid summer merge with our characters’ outlooks to create an emotional place where we buy in and hope. Outcomes are never assured or hinted at in this balanced narrative.

The tremendous degree to which these characters engage us testifies to Mr. Kennedy’s unsurpassed skill in rendering human thought and emotion. The reward of the denouement gives this excellent, touching novel its parting chord, the final concordant arpeggio, which you will take away and savor. I congratulate Mr. Kennedy, and anxiously await my chance at the next Copenhagen Quartet number.