On page 49 of this slender novel there is a sentence that encapsulates everything that’s right, and everything that’s wrong, with Dimitri Verhulst’s writing. Here it is: “And the local girls – eyeing and ogling and giggling and carolling the northerners’ looks to each other (photos are all that’s left of them now, but in those photos they remain young for ever and bursting out of their clothes) – took the step from virginity to motherhood in one much too fleeting entanglement.”

Verhulst, described by his publisher as “one of Holland’s rising stars” (though he’s actually Belgian, which makes you worry about his choice of people to promote him), is clearly a writer of some talent and considerable ambition. His deceptively slight tale of a widow who walks down from her remote hilltop home to die, a fate she has been planning for 20 years, is an intimate, unsentimental portrayal of European rural life. Yet it is also a hugely frustrating experience, blighted by sentences such as the one above, which suffers partly from structural sloppiness (how many of the four verbs are supposed to govern the phrase “the northerners’ looks”? And does “each other” refer to the girls or their suitors?) but mostly from being ill thought out. Because when you strip away the considerable embellishments, all Verhulst offers is an image of young girls getting pregnant too soon, adding nothing that could qualify as originality or insight, and much (“bursting out of their clothes”) that bears the musty odour of cliche.

Madame Verona is a woman widowed before her time, an outsider and an enigma to the simple village folk who surround her, and a legendary beauty. She and her husband, a composer, arrive from an unspecified place referred to as “the north” and make their home on a hill above the remote village of Oucwegne. One day Madame Verona’s husband, Monsieur Potter, hangs himself from a tree, having first taken care to ensure that she will have enough firewood to last several winters. She decides that when the last of the wood has burned, she will walk down the hill and embrace her own death, even though she calculates it will take 20 years. And in the meantime, she will take the wood from the tree from which her husband killed himself and have it fashioned into a cello, the instrument she used to play at home while her husband accompanied her on the piano.

This simple plot gives Verhulst the scope he needs to explore the relationship between civilisation and nature. When Madame Verona and her husband arrive in their village, they inherit a small woodland, but it quickly becomes clear that the forest will do far more to shape them. In one of his many fine phrases, Verhulst reduces the human body to “a bag of gizzards with limbs attached, held together by slime and skeleton”; it is no coincidence, either, that in his village of meagre resources, the vet administers medical treatment to people and animals alike, or that a rare moment of outright satire revolves around a cow being elected mayor.

In Verhulst’s landscape, nature is ruthless, amoral and never benign, and human memory a cruel mirage. While trees live silently for centuries, people are doomed to forget and be forgotten, until “even those who mourned them have long since passed away”. The fragility of human existence is embodied in Madame Verona herself, an elusive figure whose voice is rarely heard and whose character is largely observed through third parties. There is one chapter in which she is described entirely through the fantasies of the men of the village, who both desire her and ostracise her, but never come close to understanding her. For her part she lives anticipating the day when she is too frail to climb back up the hill from the village, and when she finally goes down for the last time it is into a midwinter snowstorm, that all-pervading metaphor for nature wiping the slate clean.

It might have made for a great and sensitive novel, but for Verhulst’s habit of striking the wrong chord at the wrong time. His intrusive narrator, who constantly doubles back on himself and throws in little commentaries or asides to the reader, aggravates rather than enlightens, and there is a general unevenness of tone as the narrative lurches constantly from the profound to the banal. His best sentences are gorgeously resonant, but Verhulst ought to have understood that it’s harmonies, not flourishes, that make a great symphony.

Madame Verona Comes Down The Hill by Dimitri Verhulst (trans. David Colmer) is published by Portobello Books, priced £10.99.