This is Simone van der Vlugt's first entry into the adult (psychological) thriller market in the UK. In her native Netherlands, it was her first entry into the adult thriller market too, having been established as an historical children's and young adults' author for about twenty years. An English translation of The Reunion was first sold and published in Australia and now it reaches the UK, courtesy of HarperCollins. So what does it offer?
Well, it had this reader gripped. Because of its shorter length at 295 pages – and why are UK born and bred authors encouraged to deliver 400+ pages to their publishers all the time? – I was not tempted to skim to the end. This was good as the suspense is effectively maintained throughout, within a tight wheel.
Set in Amsterdam and the towns and villages north of there, our protagonist Sabine has suffered trauma that has caused loss of memory, or more-appropriately, repressed memory. We meet her as she is about to go back to work at her Amsterdam bank, having been on extended sick leave after suffering "burn-out" at work and depression. But that is her current trauma, being overcome. As a child, she was the intensely loyal and supportive friend to Isabel who suffered epileptic fits, facilitating Isabel's freedom. However, when they moved schools and into their teenage years, Isabel became the popular, hip and trendy one and left Isabel behind, literally too, at the school gates as their respective bikes crossed the threshold. Sabine then quickly found herself the victim of Isabel's and her gang's bullying. But her loyalty remained and Sabine is aware that she was there, following Isabel on her bike, on the day Isabel disappeared. And so much memory of that time has been repressed.
The newspaper announcement of a school reunion causes memories to start to resurface in Sabine, just as she returns to work. There, she faces a second round of bullying sourced by someone she previously recruited into the team. In the present, she shows a bit of spine in dealing with it, but what of the past? She starts to realise the extent of her memory loss as she returns to the office.
The focus of the story is what happened to Isabel on the day she disappeared? Does Sabine harbour long-repressed memories of what actually happened on that day and will she get to remember?
This novel is one of peeling away layers, much like getting to the core of a Russian doll, in this case using the evolving and resurgent memories of Sabine. That may sound simple, but the author has chosen to use first person, present tense for her narrative. Thus, "holding the mirror up" proves difficult, but Simone van der Vlugt achieves this, even at the early stages when some of Sabine's statements are jarring in their potential ambiguity. We hear Sabine's side and interpretation, but what of the other? It only takes a few pages before the "red alert" is out there and the appreciative reader will be looking out for potential inconsistencies.
This is a gripping tale based on psychological suspense. It weaves the pressures of Sabine's current life with the historic pressures from her formative years. Both her brother and his friend fall into the frame in respect of the past and suspicion. The friend also falls into the frame in her current life and Sabine's relationship with him is another story of some great tension. It is a tale told in a simple fashion, with a direct prose that does not attempt to lead you to looking up in the OUD once translated. The essence here is in the nature of the prose and the storytelling; Sabine talks as straight and as simple as an unused wire brush and we listen. We want to know more. We feel for Sabine. We want to get to the bottom of Isabel's disappearance, perhaps more than Sabine herself does. And the "all known" does come out in the end. A couple of Australian blogging readers referred to the ending as "disturbing". It is. But Sabine's journey of memory and fight for a current decent life is all the more disturbing. You have to read it to find out. (And don't peak to the end as it will spoil it for you.)
On a couple of occasions this novel does require some "suspension of disbelief" in regards to plot, but overall it does deliver, and well. I can only imagine that Simone van der Vlugt has become even better with her successive adult novels and I look forward to reading them.
Reading what it "says on the label" in terms of synopsis, I didn't expect to laugh out loud when reading, but I did. Here's a short extract, where Sabine prepares for a date with her brother's old friend (now working in IT at her banking employer) and goes shopping with her friend Jeanine to prepare for the night in question:
'First lingerie.' Jeanine pulls me along.
We go into a lingerie shop, which is a first for me. As long as I can remember I've bought my underwear in Hema. We glide betwen rails full of sweet pastel-coloured satin on the one side and daring red and black knickers on the other.
Jeanine picks up a hanger; which seems to me to hold only scraps of transparent lace, but on close inspection they turn out to be a tiny pair of underpants and matching bra.
'This!' she insists. 'And this too!' In a single move she draws a transparent pink slip from the rack. I look at it a bit hesistantly.
'Isn't that a bit slutty?' I ask.
'Sexy is the word,' Jeanine corrects me. 'Just try it on. This is the kind of thing you have to see on.' She pushes me towards the changing rooms and while I undress and slip into the negligee over my head, she throws a couple more matching sets in. A while later she slides into the cubicle. 'So? Does it fit?'
I look at myself in the mirror and see a pastel-coloured sex kitten.
'I'm not sure, Jeanine. It's not really me.'
'You don't have to dress as who you are but as who you want to be. It looks wonderful on you, Sabine. You have to take it.'
I can't do much in the face of such persuasion. I take them to the checkout. As I'm putting in my PIN, I look anxiously at the total, but quickly press the OK button and put my card in anyway.
'So,' says Jeanine. 'What's next?'