Internationalism versus Nationalism

The Work of Anne Provoost

Jan Decorte (Flemish actor and ex-member of parliament) once declared that the Flemish only truly come into their own through living with other nationalities. That internationalism is echoed in the claim of young people’s author Anne Provoost (1964-): ‘I would find it impossible to write a book set in Flanders’.

Yet from the beginning Provoost was a prophet honoured in her own country. The quality of her 1990 debut My Aunt is a Pilot Whale (Mijn tante is een grindewal) was immediately confirmed by the press and the prizes it won. This was somewhat unexpected for the first Dutch-language book for young people about incest. Translations in German, English, Danish, Swedish and Portuguese quickly followed. Readers in these language areas apparently fell for the story of Anna and her strange niece Tara, who abuses herself, cuts out Red Riding Hood’s mouth from a story book and throws bottles containing mysterious messages into the sea. After her mother commits suicide, Tara’s behaviour becomes even more unfathomable. The pivotal moment of the story is the washing ashore of a school of pilot whales. Tara, together with a biologist, helps carefully to prepare a young whale for life in the open sea. At the same time, Tara is prepared in a subtle way for a new life in society. The scars of her incestuous relationship with her father are indelible, but for Tara the book ends in hope.

Stylistically, My Aunt is sober but well-written, unusually precise and pithy. From the point of view of content, this debut benefits from a very acceptable dose of wilfulness, which continues to characterise Provoost’s work. Thus, the relationship between Anna and Tara is far from the usual ‘bosom-friends’ cliché. The central theme of incest is conveyed in a subtle way. The behaviour of Tara’s father is, of course, unacceptable, but he is not simply portrayed as a lecher. The moments when Anna accepts her father’s friendly touches form a subtle counterbalance.

It is not unusual for writer’s block to set in after such a notable debut. Not so for Anne Provoost. She has written three commissioned books for young readers; books which, again, are not lacking in social relevance. A number of short stories and a play, A Heart for Two (Een hart voor twee, 1994) also show craftsmanship, although in these works she has little room for manoeuvre. However, a greater confirmation of her authorship did not follow until 1994, with Falling (Vallen). Until late 1995 Anne Provoost remained high in the Flemish best-seller lists, and that is unique for a Flemish book for young readers. Neither did the press ignore the fact that, in March 1995, Falling was awarded three prizes within 10 days, in Flanders as well as the Netherlands. After this came the Dutch Zilveren Griffel (The Silver Pencil, an annual book prize) – also exceptional for a Flemish young people’s book.

Falling is set in France, during a summer holiday. Just as in My Aunt, the story gathers momentum late, with the arrival of Benoit, the right-wing gentleman-extremist. Once past this point, however, the book takes hold and draws the reader irresistibly into its spirals of increasing confusion. The teenager Lucas becomes more and more involved in his grandfather’s wartime past, the topical atmosphere of xenophobia and his own obscure relationship with Caitlin, his old flame.

Again Provoost has produced a work that is utterly contemporary. She does not cherish the illusion that Falling will stamp out neo-fascism. Yet she knows that the only thing which makes sense is to write about it in a subtle way. Her style has remained sober, her ability to find the right words has grown. In many short, nuanced sketches which are compelling and complement each other, the reader is carried along in the terrifying fall experienced by the main character. Everything seems to fall in this book: trees, Caitlin, fixed values, human façades and, of course, Lucas himself. It is the most sombre book that Provoost has written to date, although it is not really about the heavy burden of the past, but about learning to live with a future laden with the present.

Critics describe the book as ‘shimmering’, ‘frightening, impressively beautiful’, ‘topical, complex and compelling’. The calibre of Falling is compared to that of Aidan Chambers, and described as ‘absolutely the most important young readers’ book of 1994, from a social as well as a literary point of view’.

By Wim Vanseveren
Translated by Yvette Mead

First published in The Low Countries, 1996