Friday, 4 May 2018

Thirty Days by Annelies Verbeke


Thirty Days by Annelies Verbeke
First published in Dutch as Dertig Dagen in the Netherlands by De Geus BV in 2015. English language translation by Liz Waters published in the UK by World Editions in August 2016.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Where to buy this book:

The Book Depository : from £11.50 (PB)
Wordery : from £11.15 (PB)
Waterstones : from £11.99 (HB)
Amazon : from $2.99 / £0.50 (used PB)
Prices and availability may have changed since this post was written

Alphonse, funny, observant, and imaginative, is a former musician who has left Brussels with his girlfriend Cat to live near her parents in the buttoned-up rural district of Westhoek. It has open fields, wide low skies, more World War I graves than almost anywhere else in Europe—and one of the highest suicide rates in the Western world. Alphonse starts a new life as a handyman. As he paints and decorates the interior of people's homes he gets to know their complex emotional lives—their affairs, familty disturbances, messy divorces, everyday cruelties, and unexpected dreams. But when he, Cat, and a client help a group of Afghans and Syrians at a makeshift refugee camp, he learns that not all locals appreciate their work … 

Humorous, melancholy, and wise, this is a deeply moving story about love, outsiders, and the need to belong.

Thirty Days has a wonderful sense of its rural Belgian setting and I particularly appreciated in this novel how Verbeke used location to illustrate the issues she raises throughout the story. Westhoek is reasonably near the French border and the locals see no problem with border hopping for cheaper grocery items or similar mundane needs. Yet their anger is roused when a group of desperate Syrian refugees set up a temporary home near the village with the hope of progressing to the UK. Easy border crossings, it would seem, are reserved for Europeans only.

Alphonse has lived in Belgium for years but, having only recently arrived in Windhoek, is very much an outsider. Verbeke cleverly portrays the closely interlinked village and I could imagine similar places I have known. Everyone knows what everyone else is up to so, for some people there, Alphonse being disconnected and neutral is a relief. They unburden their problems on his shoulders with a seemingly bizarre sense of abandon. Others however react only to the colour of his skin because Alphonse is black. It took me quite a while to pick up on this because I was attributing Windhoek standoffishness to his newness. It wasn't until racism was obviously pointed out as their primary motive that I realised.

In several ways the novel Thirty Days reminded me of the film the Intouchables. Alphonse is a lone black face in the same way as Driss and undue weight (in my opinion) is given to his love of dancing. Thirty Days starts out with a pleasant humour too although, as can be guessed from the synopsis, the story takes darker turns. Alphonse was difficult for me to pin down as a character because he is often seen through the way people around him react to him. I liked his elderly neighbour Willem. Through Willem's obsession for the tirailleurs senegaleses, WW1 soldiers conscripted from several African colonies, we learn that hundreds of black men were welcomed into this part of Belgium a century before, but as poorly equipped infantry soldiers whose names weren't even written correctly on their gravestones.

Thirty Days is an engaging novel set in a part of Europe I wasn't previously aware of so I was interested to explore it literarily. Verbeke tells a good story, intertwining her ideas well and I enjoyed reading this book.


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Annelies Verbeke / Contemporary fiction / Books from Belgium

2 comments:

  1. I had to read this review after reading the author's name because it sounded like it had been translated from Dutch! And lo and behold it was! I am glad you liked getting into Belgium. I haven't seen many books set in the country of Belgium before. I also really loved the movie Intouchables and seeing it compared to that has me hopeful for this one being a good read. I might read it in its original language!

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    Replies
    1. Yay for you reading in Dutch!
      I'm hoping to get five Belgian books read so I can add its WorldReads post in July. The Netherlands and Belgium seem to have surprisingly few authors translated into English - I'm not sure why.

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