May 14, 2024

My Darling Dreadful Thing

By Johanna van Veen
Review by
In Johanna van Veen’s beautifully written and deeply disturbing My Darling Dreadful Thing, a murder trial hinges on whether ghosts are real.
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Ghost stories rely on a few basic tenets: ghosts exist, they can influence the corporeal world and they have an interest in doing so. In Johanna van Veen’s beautifully written and deeply depressing My Darling Dreadful Thing, a murder trial’s outcome hinges on whether the characters can accept these tenets. Roos Beckman, a young woman in post-World War II Netherlands, has been accused of killing Agnes Knoop. Her psychiatrist, Doctor Montague, is trying to establish an insanity defense for his young patient, whereas Roos is trying to prove that Ruth, her spectral companion, both exists and is the true culprit. But van Veen’s focus is on what happened before the murder, how Roos discovered who she was outside the constraints of the abusive home where she conducted fraudulent seances with her mother.

The domineering stage mother, unwilling child performer and floral names (roos is Dutch for “rose”) are all reminiscent of the musical Gypsy. However, unlike Gypsy’s Mama Rose, who is often interpreted as a tragic figure rather than a villain, Roos’ Mama is wholly unsympathetic. For all its ensanguined spectacle, My Darling Dreadful Thing’s most disturbing sequences may be Roos’ descriptions of her life with Mama, which are rivaled only by Agnes’ stories of her own past or the distressingly casual racism several of the antagonists display towards her for her Indonesian heritage. This is a ghost story, but its supernatural horrors are constrained compared to the concentrated hostility the real world directs at its most marginalized. And van Veen is not so naive as to expect her characters’ resilience to be infinite. They are strong but brittle; they break, despite everything spirit companions (real or hallucinated) do to help.

Roos’ trial is never more than a frame, and is dispensed with in a bewilderingly short sequence near the novel’s end. Van Veen’s focus never wavers from Roos, and the result is an unremittingly bleak but well-crafted story, where even joyful moments are limned with Roos’ desperation and our sense, as readers, that none of this will end well for anyone.

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My Darling Dreadful Thing

My Darling Dreadful Thing

By Johanna van Veen
Poisoned Pen
ISBN 9781728281544

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