An Erotic Story of Love and Obsession in 1960s Amsterdam

THE SAFEKEEP, by Yael van der Wouden

What a quietly remarkable book. I’m afraid I can’t tell you too much about it. Here, though, are some non-spoiling notes on Yael van der Wouden’s debut novel, “The Safekeep,” to help define and recommend it. It’s 1961 in Amsterdam and the book’s protagonist, Isabel, is having dinner with her brothers, Hendrik and Louis, and Louis’s latest girlfriend, Eva.

Throughout their meal, Isabel is indifferent to the chirpy but inscrutable Eva and, when pressed, rude to the point of cruelty. She is much more interested in the broken bit of china plate in her handbag, which she has brought along to show Hendrik. The plate belonged to their home, to their mother, and she found it buried in the garden. She keeps a close inventory of every precious item in the house where the siblings arrived as children sometime during World War II, and where she continues to live; she is disturbed by this inexplicable china scrap. How did it get there? Distrustful and defensive, she suspects malicious intent.

How is it that Isabel became so locked up, sometimes literally, in a joyless life in that house? “She saw herself clawing into the walls, taking root,” we are told; her mother has died, the brothers have left, and though she has no legal claim to this house, Isabel has planted herself with no intention of leaving. Nor does she intend to let anyone in.

What she cannot stop is the arrival of the girlfriend, Eva, who Louis insists must stay there with her for a month while he is away. With Eva’s arrival, the psychological drama gradually gives way to a love story of such intensity that it is easy to forget about the broken china plate. There are compelling sex scenes. Nay; a compelling sex chapter, not gratuitous.

Nothing in this book is gratuitous. Van der Wouden’s writing is fine and taut. She lasers in on details, and presents unsentimental and intrinsically powerful metaphors. Here is one, late in the novel: “The canals had frozen over. Isabel tested one with her foot and found it solid, and then stood on it in wonder; a miracle, she thought, to stand so solidly on what could also engulf you.”

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