The Darkness that Divides Us, by Renate Dorrestein (translated by Hester Velmans), is a story of lives blighted by secrets surrounding a murder. Told from the points of view of the children most affected, it highlights the misunderstandings and frustrations that arise when adults charged with caring for young people forget that children speak a different language to them.
The book is set in and around a new housing estate in the Netherlands, a prototype that the government promised would allow families to grow amongst like minded people, detached from the problems and fears of inner city living. Young couples moved into these sterile and remote dwellings, and soon began procreating. As fathers had to travel longer distances to work, the mothers would get together to air their grievances. Thus their children got to know each other from the cradle.
Close to these new homes is an old rectory. Here lives Lucy, her bohemian mother and their two lodgers, Ludo and Duco. Lucy’s mother illustrates children’s story books. She reads Tarot cards for the other mothers. She doesn’t fuss if clothes are dirty or juice is spilt. The children love to visit her house and Lucy, always ready to suggest a daring and imaginative game, becomes the de facto leader of the preschool group.
When a new boy, Thomas, moves into a house on the estate Lucy chooses him as her special friend, deciding that they will become engaged. A party is held at her house to celebrate the occasion which turns inexplicably grim when Lucy’s mother discovers Thomas’s origins. She decides that her family can no longer live in the rectory, that they must move far from these people. Appalled, Lucy decides to run away.
On a stormy night Lucy sneaks out of the house, overhearing an argument between her mother and their two lodgers as she leaves. The next morning Thomas’s father is found dead.
The children are six years old and have only just started school. Their escapades and reasoning appear precocious, a reminder that adults struggle to empathise with young people at their level. Parents will think they know best and try to protect. Children observe the fickleness of adult friendships, the interesting facts they refuse to share, how their opinions are swayed by gossip and speculation.
Events of that stormy night change Lucy forever. The other children are frustrated by her sudden restraint and try to force her to react by tormenting her, desiring the return of their exuberant leader. Unbeknownst to them Lucy has been tasked with keeping a dark secret that over time she locks away in the recesses of her mind. She accepts years of vicious bullying believing it is her due.
Lucy’s mother goes to prison and her child is cared for by Ludo and Duco. The men are largely unaware of the torments Lucy suffers at the behest of her erstwhile friends. When her mother is released it becomes clear that their situation has become untenable. The four decide to move away.
The first part of the book is told from the point of view of one of the bullies, a child living in a supposedly ideal family unit. The second part, set on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, is narrated by Lucy. Here she must learn a new language and find a way to fit in with local children raised on the remote island. Although still only twelve years old, the damage caused by her childhood reverberates.
Ludo and Duco continue to offer Lucy their unconditional if somewhat gauche support. Lucy and her mother struggle to cope with what the other has become. Lucy is trying to move forwards, unsure of the truth of her memories from the pivotal night, unwilling to think too deeply about what happened and her role in events.
“The story that lay pressed between the covers of our mutual silence had best remain what it was; a closed book.”
The damage caused by her mother’s attempts to protect Lucy lead to her dealing with the island children’s taunts in a shocking way. She is terrified of once again becoming the victim of unrelenting bullying. She longs for the company of younger children who have not yet learned to torture those they perceive as not fitting in.
By the denouement Lucy has turned eighteen and is facing her future. Out in the world, away from the support of Ludo and Duco, she is forced to confront the way she has allowed the secrets of her past to shape how she thinks. The adults who cared for her may have had her best interests at heart but each person, child and adult, were affected in ways the others proved unable to comprehend.
This tale is in many ways chilling, not least because of the uncomfortable truths it lays bare. As adults it is too easy to think we know better than the children we interact with. We cannot control the events they will remember, the conversations and silences they will translate in unforeseen ways. The voices of the narrators are a reminder that, whatever our age, it is only possible to live inside one’s own head, unable to fully appreciate other’s perceptions, feeling at the moment and dwelling on whatever causes pain.
A complex and unusual story that, whilst heart-rending, is never sentimental. It is tense in places, thought provoking and engaging. A recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, World Editions.