I was still at the point in my life when the house was the hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.
It was apt that I read Ann Patchett’s latest novel, The Dutch House, while I was at McCrae. McCrae is the place where I’ve spent all of my summers. This year, I saw for the first time, the house that has been built where my family’s fibro beach shack once stood. When the shack was sold (I was devastated) people said to me, “It’s just a house, you still have the memories.” Logically, I knew this to be true but it didn’t explain why I continued to pass the house, seeing the unfamiliar cars in the driveway, and the new curtains hanging in the window, and always wondering, “Did ‘they’ love the house as much as I did?”
In The Dutch House, I found kindred spirits in siblings Maeve and Danny. The house in question is named for the nationality of its original owners, the Van Hoebeeks (although features Delft mantlepieces, a dining room with a deep blue and gilt ceiling, and a powder-room with carved walnut panels of birds and flowers). Danny describes the house as “…more in keeping with Versailles than Eastern Pennsylvania…” and as a child, found its opulence ‘mortifying’.
Danny and Maeve are forced to leave the Dutch House but, as adults, they frequently return, parking across the street, observing the house from a distance and reflecting on what had happened to them (I won’t give that part of the story away!) –
“…like swallows, like salmon, we were the helpless captives of our migratory patterns. We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father. We pretended that what we had lost had been taken from us by the person who still lived inside….
It is during one of these visits that Danny asks Maeve whether she thought it was possible to ‘…ever see the past as it actually was.’ While Maeve insists that she does that, Danny is not so sure and proposes that we in fact ‘…overlay the present onto the past,’
“We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.”
So where does this leave me, and my memories of a far-from-opulent beach shack? I think I’m with Danny, and that my ‘past’ with the beach shack represents a carefree childhood; an endless summer; family; a life free of responsibility, timetables, and expectations – all seen though the far more burdened lens of the present.
I’ve said little about the plot of The Dutch House – I won’t go into specifics but know that the gentle twists and turns are absolute perfection.
Equally wonderful is the deliciously complex theme of motherhood, which Patchett magnifies by adding fairy tale elements to the story – the ‘wicked’ stepmother; the distant father; the fairy godmother; a red coat; life-saving elixirs; and the magical castle (and in the case of the Dutch House, its secret doors; curtains enclosing window-seats; a dark basement; and chests and wardrobes full of things that hadn’t been touched in decades). These narrative elements are familiar and yet Patchett incorporates them out in a way that is unexpected but nonetheless believable.
Mothers were the measure of safety, which meant that I was safer than Maeve. After our mother left, Maeve took up the job on my behalf but no one did the same for her.
5/5 I didn’t think I could love a story as much as I loved Commonwealth, but there you go, Patchett has done it again.
I received my copy of The Dutch House from the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing ANZ, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
“Dear Maeve, Last night Andrea announced she didn’t like the apple cake. The apple cake is everybody’s favourite but now Jocelyn isn’t supposed to make it anymore. Jocelyn said it doesn’t matter, and that she’d make me one at her house and smuggle it in in pieces.”
I’m not a huge fan of cooked fruit however I have fond memories of my Nan making a delicious Dutch Apple Cake.