In her second novel to be translated into English, bestselling Dutch author Renate Dorrestein paints an intimate portrait of domestic bliss torn asunder by a devastating and unexpected event—and by the isolation that follows in its wake. An unflinching look at marriage and human vulnerability, Without Mercy dives deep beneath the surface, from the initial stages of grief to the rarely visited underworld where the heart finally breaks open and real healing begins.
Phinus and Franka Vermeer have a “perfect” marriage and adore their teenage son, Jem. They feel lucky and secure in their lives until tragedy strikes, and Jem is murdered. Like an experienced psychologist, Dorrestein expertly explores the isolation that inevitably results from such a shock as well as the gender differences that manifest in handling overwhelming emotions. Franka is frozen, unable to sleep, refusing to give away any of Jem’s things; Phinus is overwhelmed with guilt, obsessed with revenge and what he might do to the murderer. The longer Franka and Phinus inhabit their own fantasy worlds, the further they find themselves from each other.
The centerpiece of the story, which Dorrestein gracefully weaves together in a series of flashbacks, is a weekend retreat in the country the couple takes in an attempt to reconnect with each other. Unfortunately, the time alone only reveals how far they have grown apart. As Phinus makes worse and worse decisions, we watch with horror and also humility. Who among us can say that we could negotiate such complex emotional terrain with any more finesse than he?
A brave and heartbreaking exploration of love and loss, Without Mercy exposes our own human vulnerability and the grace and tenderness ultimately available if we are willing to open our hearts to it.
Renate Dorrestein, the award-winning author of A Heart of Stone, is one of the Netherlands’ best loved and bestselling novelists. Without Mercy is the second of her novels to be translated into English.
This is the second novel you have written about family tragedy and survivors’ guilt. Where does this theme come from? How do you have such a deep understanding of this emotional terrain?
When I was twenty-seven, something happened that would change my life for ever. My youngest sister committed suicide. She had just turned twenty and had for years been suffering from eating disorders that eventually became totally unmanageable for her. It’s decades ago now, but I still find it devastating that I hadn’t been able to keep her alive. When a friend or relative dies of cancer, the survivors aren’t haunted by feelings of guilt. In the case of a suicide that’s completely different. You keep wishing you’d done better somehow; you keep wishing you’d been able to come up with some sort of solution or inspiration. And you stare at your family members, thinking the same about them and knowing that they are thinking it, too. A suicide is probably the most tragic event that can take place within a family, and it has taught me a lot about family dynamics.
Without Mercy has been translated into English, Italian, French and Swedish. Have different audiences reacted differently to this story? Have some connected with it more than others?
It will also be out in Germany soon. What strikes me is that all those foreign readers and critics seem to appreciate the book in more or less the same manner—maybe because it’s a story about fate, which is a pretty universal theme. I try to show how difficult the human condition is, and how impossible it can seem to remain a decent human being under certain circumstances. Apparently, people connect with that, whatever their nationality is. The Italian press wrote that I am “a master of describing pain.” That’s a bit of an eerie compliment, but then again, we all have times of suffering in our lives, and a good novel, by finding words for our pain and speaking honestly about it, can indeed be tremendously helpful to all of us.
How do you experience writing? Are you disciplined in your writing routine? Do you write at the same time each day? Do you know the basic outline of your story before you write it or does it seem to come to you as you work?
I write very much in the same way in which readers will later read my books: not knowing what’s going to happen next. I never make a plan or a schedule. It would take the excitement out of the writing, I think. I love to be surprised and overwhelmed by the turns the story seems to take on its own behalf. It’s a fun method, but it requires loads of rewriting. Without Mercy went through twenty-two different drafts before I was satisfied with it. I only discovered that Phinus had grown up as an orphan while I was in the fourteenth draft! Such a relevant part of his character, but until that moment, I’d completely missed it. And yes, I have very strict routines. I write every day. That’s the only way to find out how the story will end.
Why did you choose to present the story in a series of flashbacks? Did the novel appear to you that way or did you rearrange the sequence?
The main story is about what happens to Phinus and Franka after their son is killed. Unable to find the same way of grieving, they drift apart. That’s something that happens often, in reality. We tend to think—or hope—that grief will unify us, but that’s not always the case. Loss can breed new loss, it seems. While writing Without Mercy I was focusing on this painful process. All the things that had led up to the point that Jem was killed were to my mind less relevant than the result of it: his parents’ estrangement. If I had told the story in chronological order, the psychological impact would have been different. That’s why I decided to start with Franka’s and Phinus’s sorrow and fill in the rest with flashbacks. By the way, I have a feeling that this is a rather “European way” of approaching a story. Americans always question me about the use of flashbacks in my work, almost as if they were not accustomed to them. Very intriguing!
Why did you title the novel “without mercy”? Does the phrase refer to a cosmic lack of mercy or the characters’ lack of mercy for themselves?
In the novel, Jem’s mother tells him that he was named for a character in an American novel. We know from the name of that character’s father, Atticus, that the book was To Kill a Mockingbird. What is the significance of using Jem’s name and referencing that American story? Do you see a parallel between the two characters named Jem?
No, there is no parallel between the two Jems. It was just meant as a tribute to the most gripping book I’ve ever read in my entire life, that’s all.
You titled one chapter “What Fate Wants.” What do you believe about fate and free will?
Like everybody else I guess, I long for cosmic order and justice. We want to believe that there’s a reason and an explanation for everything that happens to us. But if you look at life closely, there is an awful amount of sheer randomness and even chaos going around. Maybe we could live happier lives if we were able to accept that most of the time we’re not behind the steering wheel ourselves. When we fail, it’s not because we’re so stupid; it’s just because fate is bigger than we are.
The United States has a frightening incidence of death by handgun. Does the Netherlands suffer from the same epidemic?
Fortunately in my country it is against the law to possess a gun. For a Dutch citizen without criminal connections it’s virtually impossible to obtain a weapon as we have no gun shops. Guns are not part of our everyday life, so I had a hard time making it acceptable for the Dutch reader that a gun is actually being used in Without Mercy. (The solution was to introduce an antique weapon, a collector’s item.) Of course, given this situation, death by handgun is quite rare. We do, however, suffer from a horrifying epidemic of random, senseless violence with fatal consequences. People get beaten to death for nothing. A few weeks ago, someone was killed in front of a supermarket because he spoke up for an old lady who was being insulted. Ten years ago something like that would still have been unthinkable in Holland. It seems as if we, as a society, have lost both our innocence and our capacity to bear frustration. Nowadays when you don’t like something, you just start kicking and beating people. It’s terrifying.
There is a growing hunger for your work in this country. Do you intend to have any of your earlier novels translated into English?
I don’t know if I’d be so happy about that. I’ve written seventeen books, and I think the recent ones are better than the earlier ones. Right now I’m simply a more accomplished novelist than I was, say, twenty years ago. I’d prefer foreign readers to keep up with what I’m doing today rather than dump old novels on them. But maybe I’m mistaken. Most of my work is still in print in Holland, even books that I wrote decades ago find their way to readers to this very day. So maybe it’s just my own imagination that tells me I’m better now than I used to be.
What are you working on now?
At home I’ve just published a novel called The Darkness That Divides Us, about the mysterious bond between victims and perpetrators. Immediately after it was finished, I embarked upon a new book of which I’ve now more or less completed the first chapter. There’s always so much joy and excitement involved in starting something new. Each morning I eagerly hurry to my computer, dying to find out what’s going to happen next.