Fin­g’s War

Ben­ny Lin­de­lauf, John Nieuwen­huizen (trans.)

  • Review
By – August 3, 2020

It is 1938 in the small Dutch province of Lim­burg, and Joze­fi­na Fing” Boon is about to be dis­ap­point­ed. Although the instruc­tors at her Catholic school have rec­om­mend­ed her for a teacher train­ing schol­ar­ship, her grand­moth­er refus­es to accept char­i­ty. Instead, Fing, who lives with her sib­lings, her grand­moth­er, and her wid­owed father, will be sent to work as a ser­vant in the home of the Pru­usin, a wealthy Ger­man woman mar­ried to the pow­er­ful Cig­ar Emper­or whose busi­ness dom­i­nates the local econ­o­my. Worse than the poten­tial indig­ni­ty of the posi­tion, her actu­al job con­sists not of house­work but of befriend­ing the Pruusin’s trou­bled niece, whose appar­ent dis­abil­i­ty pre­vents her from relat­ing to her peers. Lindelauf’s ambi­tious nov­el is an unspar­ing explo­ration of life in Nazi occu­pied Europe and of the painful inter­nal life of an ado­les­cent girl trapped in a world where noth­ing is what it seems.

Lindelauf’s char­ac­ters are con­tra­dic­to­ry and ambiva­lent. Fing’s grand­moth­er, Oma Mei, is a strong matri­arch who has raised her late daughter’s chil­dren, includ­ing Fing’s phys­i­cal­ly dis­abled sis­ter, Jess. She refus­es to grant Fing the inde­pen­dence which she needs, but is also stub­born­ly pro­tec­tive of her fam­i­ly, and final­ly reveals coura­geous self­less­ness after the Nazi inva­sion of her coun­try. Fing her­self is capa­ble of cru­el­ty to Liesel, the mys­te­ri­ous child who has found shel­ter with her wealthy aunt and uncle. Unable to under­stand the girl’s con­tin­u­ous manip­u­la­tions, Fing responds with dis­gust and attempts to con­trol her charge through threats and false promis­es. Fing’s attrac­tion to Fil­ip, the young employ­ee of the town’s gravedig­gers, is both con­fus­ing and reward­ing to her. Con­flicts with her sis­ter, Muulke, are mag­ni­fied by the insta­bil­i­ty of their lives. There are no com­fort­ing moments of sim­ple com­pas­sion in Fing’s har­row­ing world.

The nov­el is divid­ed into sec­tions by year, each sec­tion with an iron­ic title and intrigu­ing chap­ter head­ings. Read­ers expe­ri­ence the same sense of uncer­tain­ty as the char­ac­ters them­selves for whom A Gold­en Future: 19381939” will not be an accu­rate char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of that year. While Believ­ing in Saint Nicholas” and The Doll that Saw Every­thing” seem allu­sions to fairy tales, the real­i­ty enclosed with­in them is clos­er to hor­ror. One chap­ter is enti­tled God’s Bak­ing Tray,” an allu­sion to a sin­is­ter exam­ple of the anti­semitism which is about to assume a dead­ly role in the Nether­lands. One of Fing’s teach­ers had patient­ly explained to her class that the world’s peo­ple are the prod­ucts of a divine bak­ing tray, with Catholics per­fect, Protes­tants less sat­is­fac­to­ry, and Jews the most defec­tive. Lin­de­lauf resists sys­tem­at­ic judg­ments about the peo­ple of Lim­burg as their Jew­ish neigh­bors are quick­ly trans­formed into ene­mies or objects of pity. As Fing observes when the town’s Jews are deport­ed by the Nazis, It was one of the few occa­sions that a small wave of indig­na­tion had swept through the town. Not that this indig­na­tion had led to anything.”

Even­tu­al­ly, Fing and her fam­i­ly will be called upon to make deci­sions dur­ing the Nazi reign of ter­ror. Lindelauf’s skill in pac­ing the nar­ra­tive caus­es each indi­vid­ual choice to take place with­in a sea of mul­ti­ple pos­si­bil­i­ties. Hero­ism and betray­al, as well as indif­fer­ence, all appear plau­si­ble respons­es to extreme cir­cum­stances. Ear­ly in the nov­el, Fing describes her attach­ment to Nine Open Arms, her family’s ram­shackle old home: Every time our house appeared at the end of the road…I tried to see it the way some­one else would see it, some­one not famil­iar with it.” Her insight is equal­ly valid as a view of the novelist’s tech­nique in Fing’s War, where com­plex char­ac­ters with uncer­tain fates chal­lenge the read­er to keep pace with history.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book includes a list of char­ac­ters and a list of for­eign words with def­i­n­i­tions and a pro­nun­ci­a­tion guide.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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