You Have Me To Love, by Jaap Robben (translated by David Doherty), is a tale of grief and loneliness set on a small, unnamed island in a remote region. The protagonist is a boy named Mikael who, at nine years old, watches as his father is lost to the sea. The boy blames himself for what happened, as does his mother, Dora. Guilt and recriminations fester as they skirt around each other, unable to provide the particular support each craves.
Also living on the island is Karl, a fisherman. There is a third house which lies empty following the death of an elderly lady, Miss Augusta, who was raised there by her parents. Mikail used to visit with his father who would sort any repairs or maintenance at Miss Augusta’s request. After her death the remaining residents help themselves to the contents of her home as it slowly decays.
Each fortnight groceries are delivered to the island by a boatman, Brigitta. Other than the policemen who come to investigate his father’s disappearance, and one trip several years ago to the nearest town on what they call the mainland, these are the only people Mikael has ever seen.
The story opens on the day Mikael watches as his father is taken by the sea. Afraid of being punished, he does not tell his mother immediately. Even when her husband was alive Dora had been volatile. In her grief at his loss she lashes out at her son creating a painful distance between them that will remain.
Mikael had been home schooled by his father, a task his mother cannot deal with. Thus his schooling ceases and another contact with the outside world is severed.
By the time he is fifteen Mikael is helping Karl, although Dora does what she can to prevent the boy leaving the island even for short fishing trips. She grows jealous when he chats to Brigitta’s son. She resents when he escapes her moods by spending time alone in Miss Augusta’s house. Dora is growing ever more unhinged, her plans for Mikael more than the boy knows how to deal with.
Life on the island is portrayed as one of contrasts. There is a harsh beauty alongside the dirt and decrepitude; a freedom from rules within the confines of the surrounding sea; a loneliness that demands self-reliance. Dora may be jealous of any person or thing that draws her son’s attention away from her, but Mikail is also intent on keeping his mother’s attention for himself.
There is an undercurrent of foreboding, a tension as the reader realises the grotesque direction Dora’s mind is taking. A powerful, parallel plot line with a searing relevance, revealed at the denouement, injects a moment of empathy for the woman whose maternal instincts have appeared so lacking.
A somewhat bleak but evocative portrayal of a life removed from the oft maligned compass of society. Although engaging throughout, the power of the story is the impact it leaves beyond the final page.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, World Editions.