‘I neglected to notice my husband’. A review of Sleepless Night by Margriet de Moor, translated from the Dutch by David Doherty

Dutch novelist Margriet de Moor has a wide following in the German-speaking world, but before I actively went looking for Dutch literature I had never come across a mention of her works in English. Why this is I can’t quite fathom, but with translations making up only around three per cent of the literary market in the USA and UK, it’s no wonder that most non-English-speaking authors go unsung. Thanks to New Vessel Press, it’s now possible to get your hands on Sleepless Night, de Moor’s brief but luminous novel translated by David Doherty.

Despite its brevity, this is a deeply complex novel, with a distinct psychological bent and layers upon layers of hidden meaning. This is particularly noticeable as the narrative progresses, to the extent that by the end I felt that I was being played with. There was something hidden there – some event, some feeling – that rose to just below the surface but refused to be revealed.

The narrator is a woman around the age of forty who is experiencing a sleepless night. To soothe herself she leaves her new lover in bed and goes down to the kitchen to make a cake. As she mixes ingredients and waits for the batter to rise and bake, she reflects on her fledgling relationship and the one she had with her husband, Ton, who died young in tragic circumstances. Her life, once so full of promise, has been marked by terrible events, and while the novel is calm and still – reading it, I could almost feel the silence of the night pressing down around me – a contained sense of grief and rage bubbles beneath the restrained prose.

Despite her refreshing frankness about sex and her relationships with men, a steady suspicion builds throughout the novel that the narrator is not giving all of herself away. In this she becomes an exact mirror of her young husband – who, she comes to realise, she never really knew – and so shows rather than tells the reader how frustrating it is to be aware that someone close to you is refusing to share their true self and deepest feelings. I suspect that a second reading would throw up more concealed meanings, and although I tend not to re-read this is more likely to happen here thanks to the book being so short.

Although I did leave this novel feeling frustrated by what I felt I didn’t understand, I wholly admire de Moor’s beautiful, sparing style of prose. It came as no surprise to me to learn that she is a classically trained pianist – there is a musical quality to her writing. Her sentences are very carefully phrased, not a single word out of place. The fact that I felt this must also be a tribute to David Doherty’s translation, which seems to have captured perfectly her nuanced and reflective way of writing.

Dealing as much in what is said as what is unsaid, this is a short, surprising, strangely unsettling book that uses silence to great effect.

My rating: 3.5/5

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