Reviewed by Janny Middelbeek-Oortgiesen in SBR 2014:1
Review Section: Fiction, Light-Hearted and More Serious
Hanna Nordenhök is a literary critic and the writer of three well-received collections of poetry. In 2011, she made her debut as a novelist and now her second novel Det vita huset i Simpang has met with great critical acclaim. In 2013, it won the Göteborgs-Posten Literature Prize. The prize was awarded ‘for an oeuvre that boldly moves on from the structures of poetry to luminescent and precisely formulated prose in novels that explore the depths of memory, where the past both disintegrates and remains intact.’ And indeed, when reading Det vita huset … it becomes obvious that Nordenhök writes with a very sensual and poetic pen that reveals layer after layer of what went on in a family living in pre-war Indonesia.
The novel opens in present-day Sweden. Kerstin is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and her daughter, the first-person narrator, visits her in a home for the elderly. When cleaning up in Kerstin’s house, the narrator finds a black notebook. It brings her back to the time in pre-war Indonesia, when her mother was a child and living with her Swedish mother, Dutch father and younger brother in the white house in Simpang.
The father, referred to as Pa, the Dutch word for dad, owns a sugar factory outside Jakarta. While on leave in the Netherlands, he met a young Swedish woman, who studied painting at the Arts Academy in Amsterdam. They married and, around 1930, the woman travelled to Indonesia to join her husband in Jakarta. Two children were born, referred to as Zus and Broer (Dutch for sister and brother).
Moeder (Dutch for mother), as the woman is called in the book, has a hard time adjusting to colonial life in Indonesia, suffers from the heat, has very few contacts and does hardly any painting at all, even though her husband has bought her a beautiful cabinet to hold her painting materials. When she falls severely ill with venereal disease that Pa has given her, Moeder withdraws almost entirely from domestic and social life. The children are left to their own devices even more than before, and Broer finds that he can’t handle the situation. He develops a compulsive eating disorder and Zus is the only one he can turn to for comfort.
Then Pa brings Roos, a very young Indonesian girl from the sugar factory, to the house as the nanny. Roos turns out to be pregnant, something irrevocable happens and now Zus betrays her brother. As a result, Moeder leaves Indonesia with the two children in 1941, just a couple of months before the Japanese occupy the country.
The narrative unfolds as seen through the eyes of a child who often does not understand what she witnesses. The smells and climate of the tropical country, the sexual secrets of the grownups and the colonial circumstances are all brought to life in a very refined, precise and sensitive style. Det vita huset i Simpang is simply a suggestive and wonderful novel.