I haven't read (or reviewed) any Dutch language works since November save a few short pieces in Pure Fantasy Magazine. It's past time I had a look at what is going on in the local genre fiction scene. Thomas Olde Heuvelt is considered one of the hottest writers in Dutch genre fiction. He's one of the few Dutch authors being published be one of the major publishers of Fantasy in the Netherlands. I've read his novel Leerling Tovenaar Vader & Zoon in 2008 and have been looking forward to the next one ever since. His previous novel could be considered either dark fantasy or horror, depending on your preference, Harten Sara is quite something different. I guess the core of it is a love story. The title is a bit tricky to translate. Harten (literally: hearts) refers to one of the suits in a deck of cards and Sara is the name of the main characters. Sara of Hearts I suppose. Doesn't work too well in English and to be honest I don't like it all that much in Dutch either. The novel however, works just fine.
Sara is a young woman living with Asperger's Syndrome. Her view on the world is radically different from ours. Like many people with Asperger's Syndrome she her social skills are underdeveloped and she shows a bit of obsessive compulsive behaviour at times. Sara tends to avoid or run away from situations that, to put it in her own words, unbalance her. Her childhood was not a particularly happy one. Her mother died at birth and her father deals with that poorly. He spends most of his time watching television and drinking beer. One day, Sara meets the young and talented illusionist Sem. It's the start of an intense and complicated love affair that will teach Sara more about her past than her father was ever willing to tell her.
Almost the entire novel is seen from Sara's point of view, a first person perspective. It's something that takes some getting used to. She has a unique perception of the world and her way of telling the story shows it. There's lots of attention to particular details, colours for instance are important to Sara but she makes lots and lots of other strange leaps and associations. Sara tells her story in a non-linear fashion, flashbacks are plentiful and certain parts of the book are a string anecdotes Sara tells us to make a certain point. Olde Heuvelt eases us into it in the earlier part of the novel but later on it gets quite complex. As a reader you need to pay attention, the author uses some fairly unorthodox methods, including a bunch of typographical tricks to have the storytelling fit the character.
Harten Sara is a story that plays out on the edge of illusion and reality. Sara sees the world in ways we cannot possibly accept as real, things that are obviously illusions to the reader are accepted as a matter of course by Sara. Her world is one where magic is not necessarily a trick, something that is reinforced by the character of Sem. As an illusionist, it's his job to try to make people believe his illusions, but at the same time he is looking for a bit of magic he has lost in his youth. Throughout the novel, Olde Heuvelt uses this to great effect in the text for all manner of literary tricks. One of the bits I like in particular, is the motif of flying as an expression of ultimate freedom and complete trust (that's what I make of it anyway).
Sara's world sounds charming in a way but for most of the novel she is deeply unhappy. The love affair between Sara and Sem is headed for disaster from the beginning. Where Sem is interested in Sara, Sara feels Beesie, Sem's alter-ego (for lack of a better word, as with many things in this novel, his true nature remains unclear) is the more interesting part of Sem's personality. It drives a wedge between then that makes both of them do some pretty drastic things. They hurt each other as only lovers can. Sometimes it crosses into the melodramatic, but quite a lot of the novel is simply emotionally extremely powerful. At one point, some ninety pages before the end of the novel, I seriously wondered if I wanted to read the rest of it. At that point they were obviously not finished hurting each other. I don't want to spoil the ending of the novel, let me just say I'm glad I finished it anyway.
Besides the love story, there's a second layer worked into the novel. Sara's father has been less than forthcoming on her past and her family. Gradually Sara uncovers some of her past. Given her limited social skills, it's not surprising that Sara sees it as a complete mystery. For the reader it is much less complicated however, especially since we get additional information though the eyes of a second point of view character. The interaction between the two is very well done, I love the tree that keeps record of Sara's life in five symbols, but in the end the mystery is not much of a mystery. I feel Olde Heuvelt made this part his story a bit more complicated than it had to be.
Harten Sara is a very intense read, aiming to evoke a wide range of emotional responses in the reader. Olde Heuvelt's unusual choice of main character and perspective opens all sorts of possibilities for some beautiful imagery, something the author exploits to fullest possible extend. It's a novel that could have a much wider appeal than just the Fantasy readers his publisher usually caters too. With this novel, Olde Heuvelt lives up to his reputation as one of the most talented writer in the genre. If fact, he may be one of the few writers who can manage to bridge to gap between fantasy and main stream fiction. It will be interesting to see where he means to take his writing next.
Title: Harten Sara
Author: Thomas Olde Heuvelt
First published: 2011