The Dutch Maiden

Marente de Moor

World Editions, £11.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

Although, for this reader at least, the appeal of fencing continues to remain elusive, Marente de Moor has written a captivating novel around the sport, in which so much else is going on that it scarcely seems to matter. It’s 1936, and Janna, an 18-year-old Dutch girl, is a dedicated fencer. Her father sends her from their Maastricht home to a country estate in Germany, where she is to be tutored by a man he knew in the First World War, the aristocratic Egon von Botticher. There is unfinished business between the two men, and the visit from Janna, bearing a letter, is presumably an attempt at a rapprochement between them.

Germany is well into its Nazi phase by this time, with an industrialised military machine gearing up for another war, but von Botticher is stuck in an earlier era when men fought each other one-to-one, with swords, following codes of honour and gallantry. “Herr Hitler has never been party to a duel. Bismarck fought 22, no less,” sums up his studied indifference to the Nazis and their leader, a dangerous opinion to hold in those times. He hosts events, witnessed by Janna, at which young fencing students are expected to incur facial scars as badges of courage.

Not long after her arrival, Janna is already deeply in love with this man, who is not much younger than her father. She gives herself to him at night, but uses her access to his bedroom to read the letters her father sent him, and the replies von Botticher wrote but never posted. Conscious that she’s a pawn in their relationship, she nonetheless endeavours to take as much control as she can over her circumstances.

It’s a fascinating read: a gothic romance transplanted to 1930s Germany. De Moor has lined up all the essential gothic elements – powerful currents of sexuality, a rambling old house, a possibly treacherous servant, a dark and brooding man whose true affinity is with the wildness of nature – and sent them on a collision course with concepts that come from somewhere else entirely. The quixotic Von Botticher is an obsessive recluse pursuing an idea of fencing that is akin to human geometry, and the discovery of an old manuscript refines the art to such mathematical abstraction that his pupils are bound to ultimately reject it. Meanwhile, two Aryan twins compete for Janna’s affections, though their real love is for each other. It’s as though Peter Greenaway had been let loose all over Wuthering Heights or Rebecca.

Such a fertile clash of ideas, and they’re all shaping Janna’s explorations of her hitherto dormant sexuality. She’s a girl when she arrives, a woman by the time she leaves – but this weird initiation into adulthood is something quite unique and incomparable. It’s not hard to see why this novel was awarded the 2014 European Union Prize for Literature. It’s a story of dark and dangerous passions, beautifully and dramatically bringing to life the very different inner journeys of its two main characters.