Nine open arms by Benny Lindelauf
Allen & Unwin, 2014. ISBN 9781743315859.
Fing and her siblings have a father who dreams incessantly but fails miserably in every enterprise he undertakes. Perpetually struggling to make ends meet, this austere Dutch family constantly has to move home and their arrival at a strangely positioned, poorly maintained house opens the narrative.
The children's Grandmother assumed the maternal role on the passing of the mother and when occasion dictates, she tells a family tale, accompanied by photographs from her special crocodile skin bag. Stories within stories are a feature of this quirky novel and the reader is soon captivated, wanting to understand the family's history and that of connected village characters from previous generations.
Being a translation, language and cultural features give this novel a very different feel, yet this improves rather than hinders the story which reveals the fears, difficulties and pain felt by family members, as well as the shared love, protection and support.
Cleverly intertwined with the depiction of this family's present circumstances and revelations about its past is the little known story of Nienevee, a Romany traveller and Charlie, a furniture maker in the town. In spite of brutal intolerance to the travelling folk displayed by the town's inhabitants, the pair slowly develop a romance over many years and this contributes a significant element to the plot development.
Boldly drawn characters appear in this tale and they ring true, showing kindness, tolerance and understanding towards the fragile members of the family and wider community whilst demonstrating perfectly normal human frailties at other times. When delicate individuals respond unexpectedly, one can't stop reading to learn how this micro community fares. This story celebrates its quirky differences and at times tears the heart before making it brim with warmth. Complex consideration of what constitutes "home" and associated notions of security, belonging and memory are presented.
The opening explains that the year is 1937 and the location is on the border with Germany. Interestingly, whilst this promotes a sense of foreboding, it does not feature at all in the story. What it does however is leave the reader ruminating upon the welfare of the family following the invasion.