July 14, 2008

Shadowchild by P.F. Thomese

First Chapter: Pruning the Buds

Put up a fence today. Even though we live on the city's roof, high above the Valley of the Ants, there are always faces, eyes, looks. God, I hate people. Shoo! Get! Up there in our secluded garden, in any case, I clipped away all the blossoms, pruned off all the buds. I had to do something, things can't just go on as though nothing has happened, can they? The leaves are bursting out all over, there's no stopping them. Shoots and new growth everywhere. (And in the darkest corner, furtive and untouched, the alder. A drab sapling that must once have stowed itself away in old soil. Now already as big as a child.)
        Fences, partitions, shears. Others dig moats, forge locks, raise bridges. Burn cities to the ground. Yet it all comes down to the same thing. Wanting to set something aright after it's too late. Wanting to set something aright because it's too late. Constraining, controlling, directing: the triad of impotence.
        Every day we drift further from her, every step we take is a step away from her. Living on means on and on, further and further away from her. We dig in our heels against the days, but the days roll over us. They drag us along, carry us off to places that bear a remarkable resemblance to something we once knew. And yet everything's different. Did someone go and rearrange things on us, while we were away? We keep running into things, hitting snags again and again, for we have no idea where in the hell we've ended up.
        Our house, the house of two strangers. Do they have a child? The silence makes it hard to tell. We grope our way around. We cast about for the smell of laundered whites in clean rooms, the breath-soft calm of the afternoon nap. Happiness is something you mention only once you can no longer find it. The cotton hush, the filtered sunlight.
        Quiet it is, but the wrong quiet. From all the cupboards, all the corners, panic can suddenly jump out at you. Despair lurks everywhere. We stay on our guard, we try not to look. Not at the little outfits in the laundry basket. And definitely not at the crib either, the little red blanket with the milk stain, the cap with earflaps. No! Don't look! It's only the sickest catastrophe, hidden especially in the little things dearest to us.
        We have to learn to defend ourselves, we're far too vulnerable this way. When a baby's cap strikes fear into you, you're in trouble.
        The constant feeling something's not right, that things need sorting out around here. Who clipped away all the blossoms, damn it? The garden was just starting to flower. I know, I know (things don't turn out the way they're supposed to).
        We have to watch what we do, mistakes have been made, something has gone fundamentally wrong. And meanwhile, like a stowaway in my thoughts, the spurious assumption that we'll find a way out of this. All we have to do is get organized. Losing something simply means you don't know where you put it. So take a good look around, even in the last place you'd ever think. Especially there. And tidy up after yourself right away, otherwise you'll lose track. When things don't have a place to belong, it all comes to a shrieking halt. Before you know it, hideous sorrow will have put on the little dress with the animals, and will be leaving the smallest of socks around, right where you'll find them.


Shadowchild by P.F. Thomése was translated by Sam Garrett and published by FSG in 2005. I knew of the author from his story "Leviathan" in the excellent Dedalus Book of Dutch Fantasy (the Dedalus anthologies contain imaginative fiction -- the "fantasy" label is a bit misleading). I think it's clear from the passage above that Thomése is a major writer. I hope more of his work will be translated.


P.F. Thomése was born in the Netherlands in 1958. He won the AKO Literature Prize with his first book, the short-story collection Zuidland (South Land), in 1991. He went on to publish two novels, Heldenjaren (Heroic Years) and Het zesde bedrijf (The Sixth Act), and another collection of short stories, Haagse liefde & De vieze engel (Love in The Hague & The Dirty Angel).

Thomése made his international breakthrough with the memoir Shadow Child, which has been published in more than 15 countries. In 2007 he published Vladiwostok!, a political satire about power shifting in the media.


  1. You've sold me: I've just ordered a copy of Shadowchild from a used book dealer, as it appears to be out of print.

  2. For all my complaining about the sorry state of German literature in translation, the problem is much worse for Dutch books. Thanks for highlighting this.