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Cover of book: What I’d Rather Not Think About

Jente Posthuma (translated by Sarah Timmer Harvey)
What I’d Rather Not Think About

The unnamed narrator of Jente Posthuma’s second novel, What I’d Rather Not Think About, sees the play When Women Are Friends by the Dutch writer Hannah van Wieringen. She is struck by a character’s remark that there are many stories about loss, but few about “what happens afterwards”. It’s a matinee and the audience, she tells us, is full of elderly women. Younger people are at work and “elderly men tend not to attend performances that have the word women in the title because they think it has nothing to do with them, that women don’t engage with universal issues, like how to carry on after your brother has drowned himself in a river”.

The narrator’s brother was her twin. They were 35 when he drowned himself. As children they’d imagined a life forever intertwined. Growing up, he asserted his independence in various ways, which left her feeling bereft and inadequate. They called each other One (him, born first) and Two (her, younger, forever in thrall). She doesn’t say this explicitly, but her maths is clear – subtracting One from Two leaves less than zero. “My brother had gone,” she tells us, “and with him, all of my past. I came from nothing and was going nowhere.”

The World Trade Center towers, she observes, were also called One and Two. Noting that 1 WTC was the tallest building in the world before Chicago built the Sears Tower in 1973, she says this development must have been “a bitter pill to swallow” for 1 WTC. She asks which is worse: “to have briefly been the tallest building in the world or never to have been the tallest because the building next to you was always slightly taller.” It
would be even worse, of course, to be Two watching One fall and waiting for the plane to hit her next.

As she tries to make sense of “what happens afterwards”, the narrator’s mind turns inexorably to what happened before. Translated from the Dutch, the novel unfolds in a series of chronologically discontinuous short chapters in which time is constantly folding in on itself – reminiscent of Dutch artist M. C. Escher’s Relativity, with its maddening stairways that both connect and isolate, leading people away from one another and mysteriously back again.

Despite its melancholic theme, What I’d Rather Not Think About is infused with a similarly subtle, almost self-effacing humour that in this case expresses the narrator’s bewildered, tremulous path through life. “I’m either too much or too little,” she tells us. “I’m terrible at dispensing the right dose of myself.” After her brother becomes a vegetarian out of concern for the environment, she tells us: “Whenever we argued, I would take it out on the environment by eating loads of salami.”

This slim novel is packed with allusions to popular and high culture, history, science and current affairs, yet manages to feel simultaneously rich and uncluttered. This could be in part due to the many lacunas, disappearances and erasures that aerate the narrative, from the literal site of absence represented by the World Trade Center memorial, which she visits, to the half-understood mysteries of her father’s decision to abandon the family and her mother’s emotional absenteeism. That she speaks about external events, passages in books, TV shows or plays as a way of talking about herself is of a piece with her lifelong desire to make herself smaller, not to take up too much space in the world. Curious about her environment and experiences and sensitive to their ready-made metaphors, she excavates for meaning in a similar manner to how she and her brother, guided by their geologist parents, used to gently scrape the soil in search of fossils that could help explain something about how the world was formed.

Posthuma’s prose, rendered by Sarah Timmer Harvey into seamlessly natural English, is sparse. It draws its power from accumulation, repetition and juxtaposition. Emotional drama situates itself within the quotidian: “By my 27th birthday, I owned 142 sweaters, and it was high time I saw a therapist.” Or: “When my brother ended his own life, we were 35 years old and had watched 15 seasons of Survivor.”

Her brother, she observes, had failed to learn from that show. Their childhood had its share of trauma and he’d been bullied as a boy. He was always the brave one, the fast one, the strong one and, in her eyes, the beautiful one too. Describing bicycling together in their youth, she recalls: “I always followed him furiously, as if he were a fugitive and I was the police.” After coming out as gay, he found his tribe. Yet as her partner, Leo, once remarked, talking about a Batman movie: “Madness is like gravity, all it takes is a little push.” In the end, nothing and no one – not spiritual gurus, not loving boyfriends, not his sister – could save him from the depression that consumed him. She was left to conclude that “the best survivors aren’t muscular and fearless, they are frightened and small…”

What I’d Rather Not Think About, which was shortlisted for the 2021 European Union Prize for Literature, is an achingly tender novel. “I thought about all the love we have inside us,” the narrator muses at one point, “and how only a shred of that reaches the people we care about.” The irony is that she herself is in danger of drowning in grief, while those who love her most desperately wave from the shore.

Scribe, 224pp, $27.99

Lifeline 13 11 14

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2023 as "What I’d Rather Not Think About ".

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