Lize Spit: Het smelt (The Melting)
Eva is a young Belgian woman from the (fictitious) village of Bovenmeer (it means Upper Lake or, if you will, Lake Superior). She is the middle child. She has an older brother, Jolan, and a younger sister, Tesje. Their mother always insists that there is a fourth shadow present. This is Tes, who was Johan’s twin, but died at birth. Though the village is a farming village, their father works in a bank in a nearby town. Eva was born in 1988. Only two other children – Pim and Laurens – were born in 1988 in the village, an unusually small number. As a result, the three of them have been partially attached to the higher class which, on the whole, has worked well. The other children christened them The Three Parasites but they called themselves The Three Musketeers. Not surprisingly the three became very close as a result.
Though we learn a considerable amount about Eva’s life and family throughout the course of the book, the story focusses on two periods. The first period is set in July 2002 when The Three Musketeers have finished at the local school, and deals, in particular with the summer holidays of that time, while giving us much of the back story. Eva and the two boys no longer seem as close as they were, at least at the beginning. This is because of the death of Jan, Pim’s older brother. We do not know how he died but it seems to have been an accidental death. We do not learn the real story till nearly the end of the book. It has not surprisingly devastated Pim’s mother and obviously had an effect on The Three Musketeers, not least because Jan joined in their games on occasions.
The other key change is because the two boys are starting to behave as teenage boys do. We see this when Eva is invited over to join them. She arrives early and spies on the boys. They are looking at pornographic magazines. They quickly hide them when Eva appears but it is clear that she is now somewhat different from them. We are also made aware of this as she describes some of her growing-up issues (bras, breast size, menstruation). Nevertheless, while the boys are starting to behave badly, they more or less involve Eva, considering her as something of an honorary boy.
The first activity she is involved in is the boys’ classification of all the local girls of more or less their age. This involves giving them a rating of between one and ten based exclusively on their physical attractiveness. Eva has to keep the score and she is naturally not included. Their behaviour gets worse and Eva is reluctantly dragged into various activities, some of which are of a distinctly sexual nature and all of which are abhorrent. She does not approve and occasionally tries to stop them or sabotage them (e.g. by altering the scores for the girls in her book). When she walks away and tries to get involved with Johan and Tesje, she is not happy, partially because she feels, with some justification that Tesje is mentally unbalanced. Indeed, Tesje’s mental state will become more of an issue later in the book.
The second part of the story – it is told in alternating chapters – is set in the present day. Eva has studied art and architecture, though given up the latter, and is in Brussels and living alone in a flat. She has not seen her parents for a long while but remains in touch with her family by the usual electronic means. One day she receives an invitation from Pim. They have not been in touch. The invitation is for two combined events. Jan would have been thirty and it is to remember him but they are also opening a new automated milking station. Lize accepts.
It is late in the year and the weather is grim, as we follow Lize in her preparations and her journey. Her preparations include persuading (with sexual favours) her downstairs neighbour to use his large freezer to prepare a large block of ice. This is done and he helps her carry it down to her car. As the weather is cold, it barely melts on her journey. She arrives at her parents’ home around midday but they still seem to be asleep. She waits but then decides to leave without seeing them.
While this is a brief outline of what is going on what makes this book so worthwhile is the atmosphere hanging over it. Firstly, why the block of ice? Spit drops a few clues to this but they are very obscure and may not always be picked up. Indeed, this is certainly the point. Secondly, what happened to Jan and why haven’t we been told? We even get a suggestion of what might have happened to him. The four go swimming in a deep water hole. Jan decides to dive to the bottom and does not appear for a while. We are just about to assume that this is how he died when he reappears unscathed. Indeed, it is Eva who struggles to get back to dry land. Thirdly we wonder about the erratic behaviour not only of Tesje but also of their parents, particularly their mother. Fourthly, of course, we assume something has happened with the boys and their wicked deeds, which has left, at the very least, some mental and emotional scars.
As well as these specific events, Spit continually gives us descriptions of what can only be described as unpleasant events. We are given a detailed description of how Tes, Johan’s twin, died. Johan digs up their dead turtle and we are given a graphic description. We get a graphic description of Eva’s first period. Eva’s father takes Eva into the barn and shows her a noose hanging from the ceiling. He gets her to hold a ladder while he climbs up and puts his neck in it. He comes down without killing himself. Even as she is driving to her parents in the present day, she imagines that she is killed in a fatal accident and how people would react to the block of ice. There are other such events which convey a continuing sense of impending gloom and disaster.
Bovenmeer is a conventional Belgian farming village where everything seems fine on the surface. Clearly, underneath, everything is not fine. It reminded me of one other book Donna Tartt‘s The Secret History. Though very different books, they were both written by young women and both involve a seemingly conventional place – a Belgian farming village, a US university – which has its hidden secrets. The other comparison is with David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet, where we start with the opening tracking shot of a conventional suburban town and soon move on to severed ears and worse.
It is some time since I read a book that made such an impression on me. Lize Spit portrays an image of a conventional village, which seems very normal on the surface but, at the same time, that hides a multitude of grim secrets, some of which we have some idea of but many of which we only get an idea that something is not right but we do not know exactly what and where. More particularly, we know that Eva is up to something in the present day presumably as a result of something unpleasant that happened back in 2002 but what happened to her and what she is planning are only gradually revealed. Spit’s great skill is gradually revealing pieces of the puzzle in a way that we can possibly guess some of what is going on but certainly not the whole story. The overall result is grim and very dark but gives us an excellent story and a deep portrait of three families and, indeed a village, that are certainly not what they seem. I have no doubt that Lize Spit will become one of Belgium’s foremost writers if she continues in this vein.
First published in 2016 by Das Mag Uitgeverij, Amsterdam
First English translation in 2021 by Picador
Translated by Kristen Gehrman