Nine Open Arms


nine open arms

LINDELAUF, Benny (text) John Nieuwenhuizen (trans) Nine Open Arms Allen & Unwin, 2014 257pp $16.99 pbk ISBN 9781743315859 SCIS 1642254

This is a ‘literary’ and heart-warming novel for discerning readers.  It is told in three overlapping parts and is a kind of literary puzzle in which the sections ultimately fit together to form an enthralling study of a family whose past weaves a pattern that gives depth and meaning to the present.  Part One is set in 1937, Part Two in 1863, Part Three connects and embellishes the previous parts.  The title refers to the name of the rickety building in that the nine new inhabitants: the Dad, Oma Mei (Grandma), the three sisters and four brothers, if they linked arms could surround the house.

Part 1 is told pretty much from the point of view of the eldest daughter Fing who trades insults with the outspoken Muulke, but is protective of her youngest sister, Jess who has a ‘wrecked’ back and lives attached to a difficult and creaking brace.  From the outset strange things happen, like detecting Oma Mei scrubbing gravestones in the middle of the night.  There are constant creepy hints of the supernatural, of the past intruding on the present as the children are constantly threatened by weird happenings.

Part Two at first seems to have little to do with Part One and has a different time frame and set of characters.  From Germany appear a group of gypsy-like travellers, much to the enmity of the townspeople.  Charley Bottletop, just turned twelve, and son of Lame Krit, the furniture maker, is entrusted with a poisoned sausage to feed the travellers’ dogs.  Instead, he is to be confronted by the inscrutable, reckless-eyed wonderfully portrayed Nienevee from Outside the Walls, who is to reappear five years later.  When they then plan to elope Charley is locked in the coal shed by the townspeople.  Nienevee believes he has deserted her.

There is far more to this novel than a mere plot outline can convey.  It is rich in innuendo; it has aspects of the bizarre; it throbs with the mysterious, there are hints of the supernatural; it demonstrates the truth of T S Eliot’s contention that ‘Time present and time past/ are both perhaps present in time future.  /And time future contained in time past.’ As with literature’s great detective stories the denouement is revelatory.  In Part Three intricacies unwind.  A section headed ‘Tell me Why’ begins with the best hint that a short review can give: ‘Everyone’s story is connected to other people’s by thin threads.  But the stories of Nienevee from Outside the Walls and Charley Bottletop weren’t reconnected till the end of their lives.’ That reconnection can be surmised; but Part Three of this multi-layered, but deeply satisfying novel leaves the reader satisfied, but still pondering the book’s complexities.

reviewed by Maurice Saxby

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