The Dutch House –
author : Anne Patchett
publisher : Harper
page count : 352
genre : historical fiction, domestic fiction.
originally published : 24th September 2019
Set in the mid to late 20th century, The Dutch House intricately explores themes of family, forgiveness, and the complicated relationships you share with people you love and that love you. It is narrated by Danny, following him across five decades, from when his mother left him and his sister to “help the poor in India” to when he is exiled from the household by his stepmother, and eventually, to when he becomes a father himself. Across the lifetime that this book is spread across, Danny remains close with his older sister, Maeve (the girl whose painting is shown on the front cover) following them through times in their life where they are forced to face their past – putting their close relationship under tension. Despite both the wealthy sibling’s outward signs of success, they only feel truly at ease when they are together. It is the unyielding bond between them, that both saves their lives and corrupts their future.
Patchett writes this novel in a manner that seems timeless, drifting from year to year, both going forward in time and backward. You’ll find yourself often placed into a situation where you’ll feel a little lost, unsure of exactly where in the story you’ve been placed. But it will then float to another period of time that will add clarity to the situation. I at first worried that this distinct and unique writing style would detract from the story line, however I found that it made for a much more dynamic reading experience, breathing life into the story and infusing a richness and authenticity that could not have been achieved otherwise. This way of writing paints time as a metaphor, making it fold and intertwine, often seeming to overlap and flick from year to year. It can be compared to the complex, timeless and layered relationships with family and parental figures, highlighting how some things don’t make sense until you reflect back on them years later, after experiencing new things and gaining a clearer mindset. This becomes relevant to the story as Maeve and Danny are forced to revisit their past and question whether forgiveness is truly possible for someone who wronged them so deeply.
One of the main protagonists, Danny, often seemed distant as a narrator. This could be due to the influence of his withdrawn father, however it led to a detached reading experience at times. His seemingly disaffected character contrasted with the much more cleverly-drawn Maeve, who was colourful and complex, and unlike any other character I’ve read before. As suggested by the cover, Ann Patchett has stated that The Dutch House is the story of Maeve, even though its never told from her perspective. Its depicted through Danny because he is her crutch, her reason to be alive at all. She dedicated her life to him and prioritised his life over hers. Although it did lead to a strange storytelling tone, Danny’s reserved narration further reinforces this idea.
The Dutch House is the story of two people piecing together fragments of their youth, trying to make sense of events that occurred early on in their childhood as well as later on. It is told elegantly and confidently, yet still in an understated and subtle manner. It poses a sober reflection of the stories we tell ourselves in the absence of empathy and understanding, and how the roles we cast people in may need to be reevaluated because of this. What does it mean to be connected to somebody by blood? What responsibility do we owe to our families? How are we supposed to forgive the ones closest to us? Is it possible? This novel raises a stream of thought-provoking questions packed with an undertone of loss, guilt and regret. If you are interested in family dynamics and relationships, this is definitely the one for you.