You Have Me to Love, by Jaap Robben: A boy adrift
This bold adult novel by a popular Dutch children’s author has moments of almost painful beauty, writes Eileen Battersby
You Have Me to Love
Jaap Robben, translated by David Doherty
A nine-year-old boy and his father are down at the shore. They live on a remote island, and the water seems to oppress them. Yet they manage. The boy’s football falls into the sea and he attempts to retrieve it. Soon he is in danger and his father comes to the rescue. It is as simple as that.
The boy, Mikael, returns home. His mother, as abrupt as is her way, has his soup ready and orders him to eat it. If there is none left for his father, she doesn’t care; she says he should have come back on time. Mikael, the narrator, is too shocked to speak. He knows what happened.
Dutch poet, playwright, actor and children’s author Jaap Robben’s intense first adult novel offers a chilling insight into a damaged mind. It is a taut narrative heavy with a convincing sense of dread. The comparisons with Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003) are obvious yet do not detract from the story.
Mikael, edgy and vulnerable, if interestingly devious, is to be believed. He is also an innocent, an isolated, somewhat otherworldly child dependent on his father’s guidance in all things. It is his father who has helped him with his education by distance learning papers, which the mail boat delivers with the groceries. His father has taught him to look at the natural world as well as how to swim. But Mikael’s skill proved insufficient for the current when he needed it.
It takes a while, but Dora, the irate mother distracted by her sewing machine, slowly grasps what has happened when her son at last manages to speak. All he can say about his father is: “He swam away.” Mikael can’t articulate what happened. “The words stumbled out of my mouth.” Piece by piece, however, a sense of the facts emerge and Dora acts, running out into the night with a torch to begin searching.
They rush about, the boy struggling to keep up. “Her shouting had turned to pleading . . . we headed back home, torch light bouncing over the path . . . Maybe Dad was already home. Maybe he’d taken another path. We’d probably just missed him along the way. Or maybe he’d swum right round the island, and now he was sitting at the kitchen table, wolfing down a bowl of soup.”
Sounding the alarmAfter the initial panic, there is a moment of stillness when the reality strikes home. Dora, watched by her son, sounds the alert: “The coastguard, harbours, ferry companies, the fish-processing plant, she called them all. It was the same conversation every time. Birk Hammermann is missing . . . Looked everywhere. No, it’s a small island . . . Impossible to get lost . . . The water’s cold. Search now before it’s too late.”
Back in his bedroom, Mikael reaches for his atlas. The boy knows a bit about ocean currents. He begins to trace a possible route for his father to take: “The currents travelled halfway across the world, heading north, then arching right across . . . to North America, down past Brazil, all the way down to Antarctica, and back. Eventually the currents came out not far from where they started. They came back to us.” He continues to believe his father will return.
A fatalistic hope initially sustains the guilt-ridden boy. For Dora, there is rage and a feeling of betrayal.
It would be easy to pick holes in the plot and ask why there are so few people living on the island – and, even more obviously, why Dora, who appears so miserable and has no income, bothers staying on. But Robben is not concerned with bald practicality; nor is his extraordinary narrator, a boy who stares at much of the world around him with bewilderment.
Mikael collects feathers and stones and seems content to live on with the wisdom his father bequeathed him. Phrases come to his mind and he recalls his father referring to seagulls as “sky sailors”.
For all his simplicity, however, Mikael decides to inform the education board that he had “become deceased”. He has second thoughts, realising that perhaps using the word “confrontation”, which he’d found in the dictionary and thought it sounded serious, was not such a good choice. He also wonders if deceased “sounded a bit too dead”. He then forges his mother’s signature.
David Doherty’s sensitive translation is consistently alert to the nuances of the young boy’s responses and his growing awareness of – and introduction to – adult behaviour. It also realistically handles the coarser demands of some of the dialogue between other characters.
An abandoned house on the island is central to the story and the characters. A woman once lived in it; she had spent most of her life there. She has been dead for years, her history has been violated and her possessions have been used by Mikael’s father, and by the boy as a source of small gifts for Dora. It is in the house that Mikael discovers a small treasure, which he attempts to make his own. It becomes his secret.
Robben takes chances with his depiction of the erratic Dora’s frustration and her dangerous threat to her son as he matures. There are no concessions to sympathy, although in her unhinged demands she is shockingly, if unacceptably, human.
This is a bold, tender and ambivalent narrative, raw and disturbing, with moments of painful beauty. Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent