Tommy Wieringa’s dense, allegorical, genre-juggling last novel,

These Are the Names (2015), charted both the plight of a group of migrants trekking across the eastern steppe and the soul-searching struggles of a police commissioner adrift in a desolate border town. Wieringa’s latest novel couldn’t be more different.

Set closer to home in the author’s native Netherlands, A Beautiful Young Wife follows the fortunes of only one protagonist – not the eponymous spouse but her significant other. Less ambitious yet more streamlined and affecting than its predecessor,

the book’s compelling depiction of a marriage and a man unravelling proves that Wieringa is a writer with range and skill.

His hero is Edward Landauer, a renowned microbiologist. At the outset he is forty-two and unmarried, “a collector of first times”. When twenty-seven-year-old Ruth

Walta cycles past him one day in downtown Utrecht, it is lust at first sight. He pursues her, woos her and wins her round. Instead of notching up another one-off liaison, Edward finds himself in a burgeoning relationship.

Inevitably, cracks appear. Despite claiming to have no “hidden chambers”, Edward soon stumbles upon a major skeleton in Ruth’s closet in the form of an undisclosed

previous marriage. They successfully navigate this and other stumbling blocks – her moral objections, his hang-ups and jealousies, their age-difference – but real problems begin once they slide “into a tragic vortex of age.” They become mechanical in marriage

(“and what was habituation if not death’s gate?”), their baby son drives a wedge between them, Ruth’s freeloading brother piles on additional pressure, and to get away from it all Edward has an affair with a colleague – one that initially builds him up but

ultimately breaks him down.

Wieringa’s novel constitutes a clean trajectory. His pockets of back-story focus on Edward’s dead-end “encounters in semi-darkness” and early scientific research.

His blossoming romance with Ruth transforms and elevates him; his pioneering AIDS work catapults him from junior assistant to “sorcerer’s apprentice”. Once we discern the outline of Wieringa’s sharply described arc we read on with full awareness that Edward’s

sweet love will sour and his meteoric rise will result in a precipitous fall, and possibly calamitous ruin. Wieringa may serve up few surprises but it is Edward’s blows, many of them self-inflicted, which keep us turning the pages: where they come from, how

he endures them, how they damage him, and the extent to which his happiness and stability is compromised.

Sam Garrett excels once again at translating Wieringa’s stark yet poetic prose. That said, it is occasionally jarring to hear Wieringa’s Dutch cast lapse into full-throated

Americanised English (an anecdote about how Edward was first bowled over by Ruth sees him admitting to being captivated by her “butt” and her upbraiding him with “All right already”). 

“Do you actually know what pain is?” Ruth asks Edward at one early juncture. Pain becomes a recurring issue throughout, a pertinent leitmotif. At the end of

this short, mesmerising novel, Edward is finally able to articulate his pain – enough to make us feel it and be moved by it.