Some Day Tomorrow by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"[...] a great big stretch of life - over fifty years - got compressed abruptly into a tight small ball."
This is an outstanding book to begin the 2016 reading year: beautifully written, for the most part totally captivating, thought provoking, and inviting the reader to work really hard on understanding. Some Day Tomorrow is the fortieth (yes, 40th) book by Nicolas Freeling that I have read and reviewed here; I am already worrying about the coming pains of withdrawal - only one more book is left. Anyway, after some weaker entries from Mr. Freeling that I have recently read, this is one of the best works by my favorite "popular" - how misleading the word is - author. It may even be his best book, but to make sure I would need to read it again. Well, some day tomorrow...
Although Mr. Freeling has been known as one of the most successful crime/mystery authors, it needs to be said up front that Some Day Tomorrow is not a crime novel, even though the plot involves a murder, police investigation, court actions, etc. Readers who look for a police procedural or a crime drama, ones who are interested in "Who has done it?" should steer away. There are no solid answers given and the readers are welcome to construct their own explanations and make their own decisions. Also, this novel is clearly not about the plot: the story is less important than the way it is told.
For the most part, the prose in the novel is a stream of consciousness of one Hubertus van Bijl, Bert for short, an almost 70-year old Dutch horticulturist, an owner of a well prospering "Planten & Bloemen Handel" business, on the brink of retirement. Despite having a loving and caring wife of 40 years, a wife whom he also truly loves and respects, he happens to have brief sexual affairs: one with a 17-year-old girl and the other with a 60-odd-year-old wife of his best friend. Bert has recently undergone a radical operation for prostate cancer, his world seems to be crumbling, and he is inclined to reflect on his life. When Carla, a 20-year old student is found murdered in the dunes, Bert naturally becomes the main suspect in the murder: he has been seen with her in town, he frequently takes walks in the dunes, and an even younger girl admitted having sex with him.
The novel is a stunningly written, realistically rambling account of a sixty-year story (from the 1930s to 1990s) of three generations of van Bijls business and family. It is a sweeping panorama of changing cultural and societal mores in the Netherlands, a study of the Dutch national character and of Dutch foibles and habits, and a captivating portrayal of the Zandvoort area of Holland. The novel also offers an unconventional, frightfully penetrating study of a basically decent and honest man, who tries to understand and explain to himself the motives of his behavior.
It is exceedingly rare to find well-written, non-gratuitous sex scenes. In almost all books I know (with over 50 years of rather heavy reading) such scenes are either ridiculous, highly technical (i.e., driven by anatomy, spatial geometry, or physiology), or - at best - pornographic. The two scenes in Some Day Tomorrow - one between a late sexagenarian and a teenager and the other between two sexagenarians - feel completely natural: the writing does not exhibit any erotic or pornographic tone, and is certainly free of ludicrous euphemisms and hyperboles. And the Carmen Sternwood reference is precious!
To end this overlong review, I need to mention two problems I am having with interpretation (these are my problems, not the author's). Mr. Freeling uses quite an unconventional literary technique in the novel: most of Bert's stream of consciousness is told - obviously - in the first person. Yet, quite often the author switches to the "he, Bert" narrative form. I have failed trying to find a pattern, a rule that would explain the changes. It is possible that the novel's "I" is Mr. Freeling himself, who pops in and out of Bert's personality. After all, the 72-year-old author is almost the same age as Mr. van Bijl, and he switches identities whenever it is convenient.
But the greatest mystery of the novel is its cryptic last part, which seemingly does not have much in common with the remainder of the story. Mr. Freeling writes about Carlos Castaneda's book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, without even once mentioning the author or the title; some detective work on the Internet has been needed to find the references. This has been a fascinating task, but the mystery remains. Maybe Mr. van Bijl is descending into madness. Or maybe Nicolas Freeling is. Maybe some day tomorrow I will understand...
Four and a quarter stars.
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