The Safe­keep

  • Review
By – May 24, 2024

Set in the Nether­lands in 1961, The Safe­keep opens with the pro­tag­o­nist, Isabel, try­ing to con­vince her broth­er, Hen­drik, that Neelke the maid might be steal­ing. Isabel lives alone in the fam­i­ly house. Their moth­er has died, and the house, owned by their uncle, is intend­ed for Louis, the old­est broth­er, when he mar­ries. The open­ing chap­ters con­vey the cul­tur­al and social lim­i­ta­tions Isabel faces as a sin­gle woman, con­straints that might explain her sus­pi­cions about Neelke and her over­all churl­ish­ness. When Louis brings his girl­friend, Eva, to a din­ner of the sib­lings, Isabel’s ani­mos­i­ty toward the young woman emerges full-throat­ed — but this does not stop Louis from bring Eva to the fam­i­ly home a few days lat­er, with instruc­tions for Isabel to host her while he is out of town for work. Isabel and the fam­i­ly home become a safe­keep for Eva. 

Dur­ing their shared lodg­ing, Isabel and Eva grow close and devel­op an amorous or at least sex­u­al rela­tion­ship. The Safe­keep is a tight­ly plot­ted nov­el. In the first half, Yael van der Wouden adheres to the tropes of lust and sex­u­al inti­ma­cy between women in the ear­ly 1960s. The Safe­keep has the atmos­pher­ics of mid­cen­tu­ry les­bian pulp nov­els, like Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah (1969). Van der Wouden cre­ates a dark, unspo­ken, agi­tat­ed world for Isabel and Eva, then pairs it with a plot that is deft and propul­sive. By the end, les­bian­ism is hard­ly the biggest revelation.

The time peri­od of the book — six­teen years after the end of World War II — reveals that the char­ac­ters in the Nether­lands have all con­tin­ued to live inside the after­math of the war and the knowl­edge it has brought. The Safe­keep thus asks big ques­tions: What is own­er­ship? What does it mean to own objects, plates, sil­ver­ware, chairs, beds, a home? How is own­er­ship achieved — and, just as impor­tant­ly, how is it lost? Who is respon­si­ble for these loss­es? How are indi­vid­u­als and their actions impli­cat­ed in geopolitics? 

These knot­ty moral ques­tions, com­bined with a tight­ly wound plot, make The Safe­keep an engross­ing read. Van der Wouden’s med­i­ta­tion on own­er­ship, respon­si­bil­i­ty, ret­ri­bu­tion, and repa­ra­tions may res­onate with Jew­ish read­ers of 2024. And recall­ing the atroc­i­ties of the Shoah and its many after­maths feels urgent in light of ris­ing anti­semitism in the Unit­ed States. 

Julie R. Ensz­er is the author of four poet­ry col­lec­tions, includ­ing Avowed, and the edi­tor of Out­Write: The Speech­es that Shaped LGBTQ Lit­er­ary Cul­ture, Fire-Rimmed Eden: Select­ed Poems by Lynn Loni­di­erThe Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er, and Sis­ter Love: The Let­ters of Audre Lorde and Pat Park­er 1974 – 1989. Ensz­er edits and pub­lish­es Sin­is­ter Wis­dom, a mul­ti­cul­tur­al les­bian lit­er­ary and art jour­nal. You can read more of her work at www​.JulieREn​sz​er​.com.

Discussion Questions