‘Without families you don’t get stories.’ A review of The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es

Around a year ago, Bart van Es won the 2018 Costa Book of the Year award for his family memoir, The Cut Out Girl. (Interestingly, this year’s winner was also the non-fiction category champion, Jack Fairweather’s The Volunteer, another book about the Holocaust. Given that the award is designed to honour the ‘most enjoyable’ books of the year, I’m not sure what this says about our current taste in reading.) Ever since listening to him speak on the Guardian Books podcast about the extraordinary experience he had in the writing of this book, I’ve been determined to read it. What better way, then, to kick off my month of reading Dutchly.

Although he was born in the Netherlands, van Es has lived for most of his life in the UK and writes in English, making this the only book on my list this month to not be a translation. Van Es’s background as a literary scholar is clearly visible in his elegant, understated, magnetic prose, the kind of writing that shines off the page and makes it hard to put this book down. Although there is an awful lot of information packed in – historical, cultural and personal – it never once seems overbearing or too intellectual. This no doubt went a long way in the enjoyment factor so crucial to winning a Costa Award.

Written largely in the present tense, which gives it a sense of immediacy, The Cut Out Girl follows van Es’s search to uncover a long-hidden family secret. During the Second World War, his grandparents had taken in a young Jewish girl and hidden her from the authorities until she was almost detected and forced to move on. After the war she came back to live with them, but a row saw her cut out of the family and never mentioned again. Van Es was an adult before he even learned of her existence and began to delve into his family’s past.

To create what will undoubtedly go down as a narrative non-fiction masterpiece, van Es intertwines a re-telling of Lien’s story – based on her memories and his own research – with an account of his experience as a biographer. The stories he heard and things he learned during the process of writing the book come to bear on many aspects of his life, from his relationships with his family (in particular his eldest daughter, Josie) to his feelings about his country of birth. And while the book is ostensibly a deeply personal look at one woman’s story, it also has far wider implications for memory (individual and collective) and how we deal with history as a whole.

Memory is a fickle beast, but as a central tenet of the book van Es never shies away from this fact. In fact, where Lien has been unable to remember events – for example, her traumatic night-time flight from a family cottage where she had felt relatively safe – the author is incredibly open with his readers, admitting that he has reconstructed the scene based on scrappy evidence. If what we take from this is that individual memory can let us down, then surely the lesson that collective memory can be even more deceiving is equally important. I was shocked – and van Es is clear that he was too – by the discovery that the Netherlands did not, in fact, offer such staunch resistance to the Nazis as is usually made out. More than 80 per cent of Dutch Jews died in the Second World War, an astonishing rate that is more than twice that of France, Belgium and even Germany. Ample reward money offered for the capture of Jews turned local police forces and normal civilians into bounty hunters.

While this new information does absolutely nothing to diminish my great appreciation of the contemporary Holland I have visited, it is something that will never let me go. (It also went on to colour my reading of other books on this list, including Gerard Reve’s The Evenings.) Van Es has done one of the most important jobs that I think this kind of writing is capable of today: calling on us to not simply believe what we are told, but to do our own research and question what we know. Especially in the age of boundless information, our points of view are in danger of becoming all too rigid, influenced by the herd.

The scope of The Cut Out Girl is incredibly broad, but at its heart lies one woman: Lien. Now in her eighties and living in Amsterdam, her story of loss, betrayal, survival and, ultimately, hope is a thing of remarkable beauty. At the same time, it is not remarkable. Many, many Jews faced the kinds of horrors she did during the Second World War; many people continue to face them today. The terrible experiences she went through are related by van Es with such a lack of melodrama – informed, I felt, by Lien’s own way of relating them – that they become all the more awful, all the more moving. The way the extraordinary can become the ordinary, the way unimaginable things can lie behind what might seem to be a regular façade – and this applies as much as it does to what Lien went through as a girl as to the unbelievable bravery shown by van Es’s grandparents in sheltering her – is the main message I took from this book. It is a message underpinned by the climax of Lien’s story, if you like: the cause of her falling-out with the van Es family. Without giving anything away, the spark that ignited the row was so commonplace, so trivial, that against the backdrop of what had gone before it broke my heart.

The Cut Out Girl is an important book, but no less enjoyable for that. Marrying deep thinking with genuine reading pleasure, it is a book that didn’t just deserve its award but undeniably needs to be read.

My rating: 5/5

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