Sunday, November 6, 2016

Heksenhoeve - An Janssens

Over the past few years I have been trying to keep an eye on fantasy and science fiction (although the latter is virtually non-existent) originally published in Dutch. On one such foray I encountered An Janssens Drakenkoningin. It won a contest organized by one of the leading publishers of speculative fiction in the Netherlands. While not perfect, the novel showed promise and I ended up reading the two sequels as well. In her fourth novel, Janssens takes a different direction. Where her previous three novels were fairly traditional fantasies, Heksenhoeve is something in between horror and a thriller.The title literally means 'witches' farmstead', despite not actually featuring witches. Maybe bewitched farmstead' would be better. Although Janssens does not quite manage to keep the tension up in this novel, it is a very interesting change of pace in her career.

In the Belgian university town of Leuven, a brutally murdered student is found. The body is mutilated and several bits appear to be missing. Sander Dats, on the sufferance of his uncle working of the federal police, does not buy the easy explanation of a jealous ex-boyfriend being responsible. The trail leads to a nineteenth century farmstead in the woods outside of town. It has some very peculiar inhabitants but he can't quite seem to convince his uncle there is more going on than meets the eye. In the mean time Sander's ex-girlfriend has her own run-in with the farmhouse. Looking for a good location to practice her photography she enters the woods on her own. She soon discovers she should have stayed away.

One of the things that makes this novel interesting is the language Janssens uses. She is from Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium. For anybody who has Dutch as a first language, it is obvious which side of the border someone is from as soon as they open their mouth. In writing however, that difference largely disappears. Written Dutch is very standardised and most fantasy novels, whether translated or originally written in Dutch, go to great lengths to weed out all regional variations of spoken Dutch. You may get away with a few bits and pieces in the dialogue but even that is rare. While I dislike the sloppy use of language and the rampant use of English when a good Dutch alternative exists, I have always enjoyed this regional variation. Might have something to do with living in various places in the Netherlands.

In Heksenhoeve there is a fair bit of Flemish and, surprisingly, it is not contained to just the dialogue. Some thought must have gone into how much Flemish was acceptable as Janssens probably sells more books north of the border. Janssens even varies it with each character. For some it is just a choice of words, for others it is completely phonetically written dialect. Standardisation has its uses, but when I read a book like this I am reminded that the richness of language goes far beyond what is considered correct.

Janssens uses two point of view characters to tell her story. They are both flawed heroes in a way. Sander is suffering from a compulsive disorder that requires him to count everything and attach meanings to random numbers. Being around him would drive most people crazy in under an hour and as a result he is lonely. Being acutely aware of numbers also makes him see connections others would miss though, and he feels compelled to follow up on them. Janssens shows how his disorder both limits him and helps him find clues. A sympathetic view on mental problems is rare in genre fiction but here we have a fine example.

Anouk has her own problems to deal with. Like Sander, she is lonely. Her relationship with her mother is complicated and she is single again after breaking up with Sander. When her thirtieth birthday comes around and there isn't really anybody to celebrate with, self pity threatens to take over. Anouk may be lonely, she is also independent, resourceful and strong, and brutally honest with herself. Qualities she will need to survive her ordeal. Janssens manages to avoid making Anouk into a damsel in distress when the story could easily have accommodated that.

While I liked the characters and the writing, the novel does have problems keeping the tension up. The plot is fairly straightforward and not all that difficult to predict. It is obvious early on that the official explanation for the murder doesn't fit. It is obvious where to find the real perpetrator, it is obvious what the farmstead is hiding. In terms of suspense Anouk's story line is probably the most successful.  For most of the novel she is in much more immediate danger than Sander though. While he puts what could generously be called his career on the line, she is in mortal danger. Even in Anouk's story line you never really doubt the outcome though. Janssens is simply too generous in doling out clues to the reader to make it a real mystery.

Janssens tries something different in this novel and for the most part it succeeds. While the real tension in Heksenhoeve never really takes hold, there are quite a few things to enjoy. If you look at the character development and structure of Janssens' fantasy novels, Heksenhoeve is an improvement. I enjoyed her use of Flemish in the book, the characterisation and the setting of the novel. As a thriller it may not really thrill but if you look beyond that, there is a lot to like.

Book Details
Title: Heksenhoeve
Author: An Janssens
Publisher: Luitingh-Sijthoff
Pages: 283
Year: 2016
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-7082-9
First published: 2016

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