Translated from Dutch by David Doherty
(New York: World Editions, 2018)
I’ve often dreamed about living alone on an island, or, if not alone, with a few other people. Think of it: the quiet, the solitude, the lack of distraction. And the water: the ubiquitous view, the constant crashing of the waves. It would be ideal. I could happily lose myself in nature and exist in a world void of the constant man-made noises that surround me on a daily basis. There are days I get caught-up in these day dreams, and when I visit the ocean, they consume me. But I am well aware that while I would thrive under such conditions, my son would not. Children need companionship. They need friends, peers to learn from, socialize with, a barometer by which to measure their own growth. A child growing up in isolation would flounder.
In the novel You Have Me to Love, Jaap Robben creates a disturbing scenario of a boy forced to grow up on a remote island in the North Atlantic, far from civilization and totally removed from any stabilizing influences. Robben’s narrative is a psychological tale in which the reader watches a young boy, Mikael, grow into manhood in an environment totally bereft of positive adult role models, a world stripped of his father, and one in which his mother’s sanity starts to slip the day her husband disappears.
The novel begins with nine year old Mikael coming in for dinner after a day at the beach. His father, with whom he had spent the day, does not accompany him. His evasive responses to his mother’s questions indicate that he is hiding something, a reality that becomes more defined as Mikael’s guilt claims hold of his consciousness. Again and again, in his mind he sees a pale shape floating in the water. An image one eventually realizes is the boy’s father. After saving the child from drowning, he fell victim to the rough and brutal currents that make swimming off the island a lethal endeavor.
Without his father, Mikael is lost. Unable to attend a traditional school, Mikael had been taught at home. But now that his father has disappeared, Mikael has no one to teach him, no one to guide him. Sadly, the reader learns he doesn’t just lose one parent. After learning that he is in part responsible for his father’s death, Mikael’s mother drives an emotional wedge between herself and her son, creating a distance that drives the rest of the plot.
What happens when a mother and son live alone in a house, having infrequent contact with the outside world? What happens when a mother can no longer provide for her son, can no longer sustain a loving and nurturing environment for her child? What happens when a mother’s sanity snaps, making it impossible for her to differentiate between what is real and what is not? What happens to a son trapped in his mother’s fantasy, especially when he has no useful skills, no knowledge of how to survive or function in the world beyond his island? These are the questions that Robben seeks to answer, questions whose answers grow increasingly haunting as Mikael passes through puberty.
Part of the brilliance of this novel lies in Robben’s ability to set up this perfect metaphor for Mikael and his mother. Alone and desperate for love, Mikael traps a seagull and her chick in the bedroom of an abandoned house. At first, the mother gull is fiercely protective of her child. When she feels threatened, she slams her body into the boy who dared to imprison them. But is a mother’s love unlimited, boundless? Is her instinct to protect unbreakable? Unable to escape to find food, the mother gull becomes reliant upon someone from the outside world to bring nourishment for her child. What happens when the food fails to come? When both mother gull and child become desperate? The scenario disturbingly mirrors that which occurs between Mikael and his mother. And the answers prove to be devastatingly grim.
To demonstrate the extent of Mikael’s complete social awkwardness, his lack of independence, and his inability to function in society, Robben cleverly introduces Ingmar, a young man who takes over his father’s job of delivering food and supplies to Mikael and his mother. The young man learns the responsibility of piloting a boat, and by the end of the novel, he brings his girlfriend along on a delivery. This highlights Mikael’s ultimate frustration – coming of age in a world devoid of women.
Robben’s novel explores raw and unsettling psychological territory. It is a story that once read will stick with the reader for a long time.
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Elizabeth Jaeger’s work has been published in Watchung Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, The New Ink Review, Ovunque Siamo, Placeholder Magazine, Parentheses Journal, Brush Talks, Waypoints, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Drowing Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. She has published book reviews in TLR Online and has participated in an episode of No, YOU Tell It!