Her compelling mouth, the scent of lavender and cigarette smoke

Dear Dola,

Set in Amsterdam on the eve of World War II, The Tree and the Vine (2020, tr. Kristen Gehrman. Original: De thuiswacht, 1954*) is narrated in retrospect by one of the characters, Bea, after she has left the Netherlands and emigrated to the US. She reminisces over the brief period when she lived with Erica, whom she had met in 1938 at an acquaintance’s house.

The two immediately bond and move together within a month. The impetuous Erica is barely out of her teens and works as a beginner journalist at a local newspaper, while Bea is in her late twenties and works as a secretary. Since the first time Bea set her eyes on Erica, she felt an instant attraction, but our narrator also seems to be very slow to understand (or accept) the nature of her feelings for her roommate: “When she gave you a finger, you wanted the whole hand.”

There is nothing like an unreliable narrator to make us see a story through a double lens: on the first level, we see what she is telling us to see – a reckless Erica acting in an eccentric way we don’t quite understand; but, on a second level, the lens turns into itself, and we are able to see what the narrator is at pains to avoid showing (or confronting) – an uptight Bea, betraying her feelings while trying to deny them.

The narrative builds upon itself, bit by bit, as the details of their relationship are slowly disclosed – it feels almost as though, by telling us the story, Bea were herself slowly coming to the realization that her feelings for Erica held a different nature than the one she was initially trying to convey. Was Erica playing with Bea’s feelings? Or was Bea downplaying Erica’s (and, ultimately, her own) feelings? How much of this story revolves around what is not being told? Where is the point, exactly, when we come to realize that our focus has shifted from a misreading of Erica to an unveiling of Bea?

The scene where Erica moves together with Bea and arrives at their apartment without a bed is read differently, depending on the point of the story you are: who misunderstood whom here? Much later, Bea will give us a clue: “She accused me of misleading her, of driving her to confess, of letting her have her way and then humiliating her with my rejection. There was nothing for me to say. How innocent, no, how blind and stupid I’d been.”

The book has a faint flavour of a 1950’s pulp novel, with tragedy looming over the main couple’s trespass over the constraints imposed on them by the sexual mores of the time. By pathologizing Erica’s lesbianism, suggesting that it could be traced back to her troubled relationship with her family, linking it to a fraught personality, and portraying lesbians either as violent or unbalanced women, the book also fails to transcend the prejudiced perceptions and stereotypes in force during the time it was written. Most of the secondary characters are flat; some of the plot solutions feel too contrived; the ending is too abrupt; and the prose can occasionally feel too stilted.

Nonetheless, we are driven forward by Bea’s persistent refusal to face her feelings, as well as by her mounting obsession with her roommate and their unspoken mutual attraction. The tension between the two friends (and between what Bea feels and what she accepts to feel; between what she knows and what she discloses to us…) grows in a crescendo, culminating with the tragedy that will trap the narrative back inside the traditional mould from which it had sprung.

My favourites are the passages where the narrator hints at something that was said or done, without ever fully disclosing it to the reader: “We stood there for a long time until she whispered something in my ear. I couldn’t make out what she said and she had to repeat it. She never spoke those few words again. It wasn’t necessary. We both knew they were irrevocable and would last forever. We’ve accepted it, each in our own way”.

We only come to know about a decisive confrontation between the couple through its aftermath (as well as through the subtle reference to lavender as a lesbian symbol): “The next month I was alone in Egmond, more alone than I’d ever been in my life. After that night, Erica packed a suitcase and left, where to I didn’t know. As soon as the door closed behind her, I took a bath. I scrubbed away the caresses of her authoritative hands, her compelling mouth, the scent of lavender and cigarette smoke that lingered on my skin. I changed my bedsheets and left for Amsterdam”.

The book is pervaded by a sense of doom. Soon, Germany will invade the Netherlands, Erica will become ever more reckless, acting as a doomed beloved, and Bea is too closeted and too full of herself to be able to step out of her role as a repressed lover. Entangled with their respective poles of self-destruction and self-deception, the bond between Erica and Bea is bound to give in, as their relationship unfolds in parallel to the rise of fascism in Europe. “For me, that’s where the war began, in Erica’s room.”

However, being a lesbian and a Jew in a homophobic and antisemitic society during war leaves very little room for self-deception: “war offers a way out for people who’ve been backed into a corner (…) who quietly hope for an external tragedy to come along and put an end to the unbearable situation.” In a way, this is not as much a story about Erica, nor about Erica and Bea, as it is a story about Bea learning to read her story differently.

It’s perhaps useful to think about the title of the book: De thuiswacht, the home guard, the home watch, the house sitter – an allusion to Bea’s role as the person taking care of the house (and of Erica’s life), but also the person forever waiting at home for Erica to come back; the person in charge of keeping the memories alive. We can perhaps play with words here, and think of wacht as a house guard, but also as the act of watching the house or waiting at home, and the guardian of memory, the person who was left behind to tell the story.

The title of the English translation is also interesting, and refers to a passage in the book: “Even now, with my broader understanding of humanity, I wonder whether what I took to be a tree growing off in the distance wasn’t in fact a lifeless trunk, its own leaves strangled by the vines growing up around it.” What (or who) is the growing tree, what (or who) is the vine in the story? What does the lifeless trunk stand for? It’s tempting to read it as Bea’s obsession with Erica – an unruly, self-destructive force fuelled by repressed desire, something at once stifling and stifled by the vines that grew around it.

Yours truly,

J.


Lavender High, by Alice Baber, 1968

About the book

  • Transit Books, 2020, tr. Kristen Gehrman, 150 p. Goodreads
  • The Feminist Press, 1996, tr. Ilona Kinzer, 152 p. Goodreads
  • Original Title: De thuiswacht
  • * Some sources mention that the book was originally published in 1951. In her Afterword for the 1996 reissue, Lillian Fadermann mentions that the novel was first published in 1955. In the 2020 reissue, the new translator Kristen Gehrman mentions that the novel was originally published in 1954.
  • My rating: 3 stars

2 thoughts on “Her compelling mouth, the scent of lavender and cigarette smoke

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.