‘Marcel’ by Erwin Mortier ****

Marcel is acclaimed Dutch author Erwin Mortier’s debut work.  First published in Holland in 2001, and the recipient of several literary prizes, the coming-of-age novella has now been translated into English for the first time by Ina Rilke.

The narrator of Marcel is a ten-year-old boy who appears as a spectral, almost two-dimensional figure throughout, despite his place within the story.  He is always on the periphery, always watching those around him.  The Marcel of the novel’s title is his grandmother’s youngest brother; the young narrator takes it upon himself to discover what happened to him, his death deemed, as it was, ‘mysterious’.

Many of the scenes within the novella feature, either wholly or in part, the narrator’s grandmother; he refers to her throughout as ‘the grandmother’, as though she is nothing to do with him.  This further reinforces the notion that he is a detached observer.  He is referred to, quite a way through the book, as ‘a dreamer’, and as such he has a fresh and rather peculiar manner of viewing the world: ‘her toes lay like a row of bosoms in a black leather corset’, he tells us.  His first person perspective is both odd and rather beguiling; of a trip to a grey churchyard at the beginning of the story, for example, he says: ‘I was taken there once a year by the grandmother…  It was less than five turnings between the garden gate and the place where her dead lay sleeping’.  It feels as though nothing phases him, and he is simultaneously troubled by and comfortable within his often bleak surroundings.

From the very beginning, I was struck by the way in which Mortier sets scenes.  The personification which he weaves in works fabulously: ‘Behind the hedge of a spire of roof tiles slumped between two gables’, ‘the fluorescent green face [of the alarm clock] glowed spectrally in the dark’, a coffee service ‘shivers’ and heels ‘beat a nervous tattoo’ on the floor.  It is fair to say, however, that the writing which Mortier presents is not consistent throughout.  A lot of the conversations which go on seem a little bland, but the more descriptive sentences are clearly at odd with this: ‘When boredom crept over me the floor would reveal its secret geography, complete with all the tiny ridges and ravines where the soapy water collected into miniature lakes’.

Mortier is very perceptive of his characters; of a schoolteacher who is rather adored by the narrator, he writes: ‘She was a giant honey bird, large and feathered, a hummingbird-turned-woman.  As she tasted the cake a high-pitched sound rose up from the underhang of her chin’.  Whilst it could be called a little flat at first glance, the scenes and characters within Marcel do become more vivid as it progresses, and the dark family secrets which simmer to the surface are worth picking the novella up for alone.

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