Author(s): Esther Gerritsen
The relationship between Coco and her mother is uneasy to say the least. When they run into each other by chance, Elisabeth casually tells Coco that she is terminally ill. As Coco moves in with her mother and takes care of her, aspects of their troubled relationship come to the fore once again. Elizabeth tries her best to conform to the image of a caring mother, but struggles to deal with Coco's erratic behaviour and unpredictable moods.
Translated from Dutch, Esther Gerritsen is my new favourite author. Witty, sharp-toothed and dysfunctional, Craving is a darkly comic portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship at the edge of what could be called 'best practice'. Elisabeth is dying. When she sees her daughter, with whom she has a strained relationship, cycling past her unexpectedly, she finds herself compelled to impart this news immediately, knowing that it’s not an appropriate time, knowing that somehow she got it wrong, yet she’s unable to help herself, unable to act as a parent should. She needs to let this go. Coco is understandably thrown by this news. At the outset of this novel, you are aware that Elisabeth acts strangely, is emotionally unsympathetic and probably has a form of Asperger’s or the like. The reader is set up to see Coco, the daughter, as the unwanted child: since the age of five she has seen her mother rarely, spending one night a week with her as a child and as an adult becoming further distant. There are stories of an uncaring mother, who would rather have been at work – as a gilder of picture frames - a mother who locked her young child in a room. Yet not all is so straightforward. Are there monsters or only darlings? Elisabeth, like many young mothers, left at home while her husband’s work became increasingly important and his wife’s psychological complexities increasingly unattractive and the dull but reliable Miriam more attractive, desired space and quiet. Loving a sleeping child was easy, an awake mobile and energetic ‘little fish’ more problematic. As we meet Elisabeth and Coco, one dying, the other a young woman, we are confronted by their inability to communicate honestly, by the games they both play. Coco, determined to spend time with her mother, announces that she is moving home, and Elisabeth, in her guilt at not being the perfect mother, feels unable to resist this force, her daughter. Yet what is that drives Coco, revenge? Compassion? Or an irresistible urge to scratch a scab that won’t heal? As Elisabeth's health falters and the past becomes increasingly up-close and personal, as Coco picks at that scab and Elisabeth’s mind wanders in and out of the past and present, Coco’s behaviour becomes more erratic. Her relationship with the older, self-centred Hans begins to lose its veneer of love, and her desire to debase herself with meaningless encounters reflects her inability to connect in any meaningful way with the people closest to her. Likewise, Elisabeth’s closest, most honest relationships are with her boss, Martin, and her work colleagues, while her family leave her itching to escape and lock the doors. Obsessive craving for something neither mother nor daughter can quite put their finger on binds them in this fraught relationship. This is a fascinating, darkly amusing novel. Gerritsen writes with a calm and open hand, seemingly normal dialogue and encounters are sent spinning with a twist of a word into the internal psychologies of these darling monsters. I’m looking forward to reading Gerritsen’s other translated work, Roxy.