Friday, May 29, 2009

Crime Fiction: Back to the Coast by Saskia Noort

Life is rough for Maria Vos, a Dutch soul singer from Amsterdam, in Saskia Noort’s Back to the Coast (Bitter Lemon Press). Realizing that her boyfriend Geert is exactly the kind of irresponsible man she doesn’t want fathering her children, she aborts their second child together. The ensuing argument leads them to break up. A rough patch in this young woman’s life? That’s all it seems, until someone begins sending Maria threatening letters in the mail, condemning her decision to have an abortion.

Geert is the obvious suspect, at least as far as everybody but Maria is concerned. She doesn’t believe he would ever threaten her like that, not given what it would mean to their son Wolf, or to Merel, the daughter Maria already had when they became a couple. Maria thinks the person responsible might instead be Merel’s father, Steve, a vain and irresponsible man who has suddenly reappeared in their lives, apparently tired of residing abroad in America. The threats escalate, with Maria receiving a dead rat after a band gig. So Maria flees to The Netherlands’ coast and her childhood home there, now kept by her sister, Ans. Instead of finding it a safe haven, however, Maria finds herself driven literally insane the longer she stays on the coast, to the point where she no longer trusts her sister.

Back to the Coast, the second Bitter Lemon Press book by Dutch author and journalist Noort (following 2007’s The Dinner Club), is noir in the classic sense, harking back to the famous 1944 film Gaslight. But whereas that movie’s audience knows that Charles Boyer is “gaslighting” Ingrid Bergman, we have no idea who is trying to destroy Maria and take her children away from her. The stalker, who follows Maria to the seashore, is clearly filled with a rage for which the police cannot seem to find justification. If anything, the cops think Maria is slowly losing it. Why shouldn’t she? Her mother was certified psychotic and took her own life. There is no shortage of suspects here, either. Geert is everyone’s favorite, of course, though Maria dismisses his culpability out of hand. She favors Merel’s father, but once at the coast, she also learns that Ans’ husband, Martin, has disappeared. Or has he?

Noort writes her story in first-person from Maria’s point of view, allowing her to immerse the reader in her protagonist’s growing confusion and fear. It also allows Noort to tell snatches of the story through Wolf and Merel’s eyes, mostly through their reactions to Maria’s increasing blackouts. It’s a tricky line to walk for a writer. Noort carefully leaves enough semblance of a story for readers to follow, while the world around Maria makes less and less sense. It’s almost like reading James M. Cain through singer Syd Barrett’s eyes.

Back to the Coast is two parts noir, one part horror fiction, and very well done indeed.

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