Close-Up by Esther Verhoef is her first novel translated from the original Dutch into English in the UK, brought to us by Quercus. It's one to enthusiastically include in the psychological thriller category, but with a buyer-beware sticker. I know some prefer the bedroom door closed on their crime and thriller reading and we are heading into erotic thriller territory here. (Albeit the bedroom is often not the location of choice…) But you have been warned: just in case you are sensitive to such matters. And I know that some of you may exclaim that intimate doings are not necessary to the plot. They are with this novel: it's about a relationship, first and foremost; about moving on and finding new confidence. Thus it's all rather key to the plot in Verhoef's Close-Up.
The narrative comes in two first person interweaving strands. The first and main is the story through Margot's eyes. The second comes from an unnamed and much darker individual. Margot has just emerged from the breakdown of a relationship with John, who had been unfaithful. She has lost confidence during that relationship and emerges not as a butterfly but as a plump pupa; and at size 18, she is just managing to fit into the normal range of clothes in the shops (a perfect piece of translation). Her confidence remains in her work however, but it has become easy and routine. Thus, she is ready to move on in her work too, although she does not appreciate this until she meets Leon.
Margot is let down by a friend for a weekend trip to London but summons the courage to go alone. (Not wasting money being a Dutch trait, lovingly invoked here.) On the plane she meets Leon and initially he unnerves her with his staring. Later, he saves her from a potentially dire weekend in London and a hotel for which TripAdvisor.com comments would make headline news in the UK's media. (Unfavourably, to say the least.) Leon is a professional photographer and Margot enters a new world with him over that London weekend. This continues when they both return home to the Netherlands…
But let's not forget the dark voice that opens the book – as if it's even possible to do so… That voice tells us clearly that Edith, former girlfriend of Leon, was not a suicide as concluded and reported, but that she was murdered.
Margot shares both usual and unusual features with Edith. The Rubenesque figures are usual, the heterochromia iridium eye features are not. Both invite Leon to Margot. But what is it that invites Margot to this new partnership? Fear? Suspense? Excitement? Renewed confidence? Growth?
Verhoef's narrative from the dark unnamed one perfectly depicts a control freak that is a serial killer in the making. Likewise, she tells a tale of discovery through Margot's eyes: those of someone who can be naive through lack of confidence, but whose confidence in other arenas holds forth, realistically.
Both Margot and Leon are on a journey here. Leon comes across as a very dominant partner in a potentially stiffling relationship. Margot is prepared to seek anything new to her…
The tension builds and is maintained effectively by Verhoef throughout. What commeth the end? You have to read it, and I promise a major curve ball towards the end. The pace of the plot is top gear, with the surrounding atmosphere on reading very dark.
Also featuring in this novel are aspects of Dutch culture and family life. Margot visits and falls out with her parents. Dutch celebrations make their mark. Margot sings in her car while driving to a destination (and the Dutch love to sing together). Translated into English, this novel provides spot-on insights into the culture, if you pay attention.
I said earlier this year that I was "going Dutch". They can grip you in a vice, these Netherlanders…