Book review: ‘Bread salt wine’ by Vonne van der Meer
The book ‘Bread salt wine’ by Vonne van der Meer, published in 2017, is a collection of short stories, but the seven short stories do not stand alone. Sometimes we see the main character from one story in another story in a later phase of her life, and sometimes a minor character from one story in another story suddenly turns out to be the main character. This interweaving gives the bundle coherence and structure. Van der Meer is a true master of this storytelling technique, a genre that she herself helped perfect.
- Author: Vonne van der Meer
- Title: Bread salt wine
- Publisher: Atlas Contact
- Year of publication: 2017
- ISBN: 978-90-254-5070-0
Vonne van der Meer has written an impressive oeuvre in over thirty years in which novels and collections of short stories alternate. The boundary between the two genres is not very clear. This can be seen from her most famous work, the ‘Eilandtrilogy’ from the years 1999-2002, consisting of the parts ‘Eilandgasten’, ‘The evening boat’ and ‘Last season’.
These three books, presented as novels, are actually collections of stories that all revolve around the successive tenants of a holiday home on Vlieland. They all have problems such as grief, falling in love, deceit and doubts about major decisions they have to make. Sometimes here too, main characters from earlier stories return in later ones; the character who keeps everything together is the maid who cleans the house when the previous guests have left and new ones are on the way.
In ‘Bread salt wine’ Van der Meer applies a similar process. The stories in this collection all have something to do with the theme ‘moving’. Everyone knows the different emotions that you are prey on when you move: the old house full of memories that must be left behind, the still unknown place where you start a new phase in your life; the practical and financial aspects of the story, which are sometimes difficult to reconcile with all those emotions.
The main characters in these seven stories all have to do with the mixed feelings surrounding relocations. A widow sells the house where she lived with her husband. In a later story, the same woman more or less accidentally ends up in bed with a man who has put a remarkably generous gift in her collection box. An elderly couple sells their oversized house and the woman daydreams about an adventure with the new occupant. Later, the same woman muses about starting an affair with a complete stranger, which makes her realize that she really loves her husband. A real estate agent has to sell an apartment to a man and a woman to keep his job, but at the same time feels resistance because he thinks the two are completely incompatible. Further on in the collection, the wife of the couple turns out to be divorced and is struggling with a new dress that is way too tight and the invitations to a Christmas dinner.
In the longest, centrally placed story of the collection, a strictly Christian-educated girl moves from a village to the city and has doubts about her faith; if she has a serious accident, the woman she interviewed shortly before makes every effort to keep the recorder with the interview out of the hands of the family. She wants to spare the young woman’s very religious parents the grief of hearing how their daughter really felt about them, but her motives are not purely altruistic: she is also terrified that the intimate confessions she made in the interview will be heard by others. .
As you read the stories, you gradually get the sense that everything is connected with everything, that there is some sort of overarching plan that we mortals should only glimpse occasionally. But at a more everyday level you also suddenly see all kinds of things about relationships between people you already half consciously knew in a new context, which gives you the idea that you understand the world a little better again.
It is Van der Meer’s craftsmanship to make you think that you have discovered these new connections yourself. Because her stories are about ordinary people with ordinary problems and read so smoothly, you can easily overlook how cleverly constructed this collection is. It is to Van der Meer’s merit that she makes you aware that everyday and insignificant beauty can also be hidden.