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Det vita huset i Simpang Hanna Nordenhök, Det vita huset i Simpang (The White House in Simpang)

Norstedts,  2013.

Reviewed by Janny Middelbeek-Oortgiesen in SBR 2014:1

Review Section: Fiction, Light-Hearted and More Serious

Hanna Nordenhök is a literary critic  and the writer of three well-received  collections of poetry. In 2011, she made  her debut as a novelist and now her  second novel Det vita huset i Simpang has  met with great critical acclaim. In 2013,  it won the Göteborgs-Posten Literature  Prize. The prize was awarded ‘for an  oeuvre that boldly moves on from the  structures of poetry to luminescent and  precisely formulated prose in novels that  explore the depths of memory, where  the past both disintegrates and remains  intact.’ And indeed, when reading Det vita huset … it becomes obvious that  Nordenhök writes with a very sensual  and poetic pen that reveals layer after  layer of what went on in a family living in  pre-war Indonesia.

The novel opens in present-day  Sweden. Kerstin is suffering from  Alzheimer’s disease and her daughter,  the first-person narrator, visits her in a  home for the elderly. When cleaning up  in Kerstin’s house, the narrator finds a  black notebook. It brings her back to  the time in pre-war Indonesia, when  her mother was a child and living with  her Swedish mother, Dutch father and  younger brother in the white house in  Simpang. 

The father, referred to as Pa, the  Dutch word for dad, owns a sugar  factory outside Jakarta. While on leave in  the Netherlands, he met a young Swedish  woman, who studied painting at the Arts  Academy in Amsterdam. They married  and, around 1930, the woman travelled to  Indonesia to join her husband in Jakarta.  Two children were born, referred to as  Zus and Broer (Dutch for sister and  brother).

Moeder (Dutch for mother), as  the woman is called in the book, has a  hard time adjusting to colonial life in  Indonesia, suffers from the heat, has  very few contacts and does hardly any  painting at all, even though her husband  has bought her a beautiful cabinet to  hold her painting materials. When she  falls severely ill with venereal disease  that Pa has given her, Moeder withdraws  almost entirely from domestic and  social life. The children are left to their  own devices even more than before,  and Broer finds that he can’t handle  the situation. He develops a compulsive  eating disorder and Zus is the only one  he can turn to for comfort. 

Then Pa brings Roos, a very young  Indonesian girl from the sugar factory, to  the house as the nanny. Roos turns out  to be pregnant, something irrevocable  happens and now Zus betrays her  brother. As a result, Moeder leaves  Indonesia with the two children in 1941,  just a couple of months before the  Japanese occupy the country.

The narrative unfolds as seen through  the eyes of a child who often does  not understand what she witnesses.  The smells and climate of the tropical  country, the sexual secrets of the grownups and the colonial circumstances  are all brought to life in a very refined,  precise and sensitive style. Det vita huset  i Simpang is simply a suggestive and  wonderful novel.

Other reviews by Janny Middelbeek-Oortgiesen

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