A Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein

Translated from the Dutch by Hester Velmans

I read this novel for Iris’s Month of Dutch Literature. It was the only Dutch title in my library branch and seemed like a good story so I eagerly started it. I can’t say I completely disliked it, but I was confused by it. It seemed, to me, like the author didn’t really know what effect she wanted to create – dark tragedy or tale of redemption. She tried to combine the two, but it didn’t work for me.

The story is narrated by Ellen, a woman in her thirties who is severely mean, bitter and hateful. When the tale begins she has discovered she is pregnant and this provokes memories of the tragedy that befell her family when she was a teen and that has caused her to be so hard. Her mother gave birth to a fifth child when Ellen was twelve and suffered from postpartum depression after the baby was born. In flashbacks we witness the bizarre behavior and increasingly dangerous actions that Ellen’s mother engages in and that horribly influences her husband and children.

As an adult, Ellen alienates everyone who tries to help her or befriend her and exhibits some signs of mental illness herself. Throughout the entire novel she is constantly pushing people away and shown as being a total shrew to everyone she meets. That is why I was completely bewildered by the ending of the novel that felt like a wrap-up to a feel good TV show and not the realistic ending that would naturally occur in Ellen’s life.

I got the impression reading this novel that it may be the Dutch version of a Jodi Picoult novel. A much darker and depressing version, but a novel in that vein. The writing is very descriptive and Dorrestein’s depiction of Ellen’s family life pre-mentally ill mom is really touching and funny, but the novel just felt disjointed, especially the extreme personality change that Ellen has at the end.

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