The Dutch writer Lieke Marsman has established herself in this country as a poet of exceptional skill with her collection The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes (2019), which was inspired by her diagnosis of a rare form of bone cancer at the age of 27.
Her debut novel, The Opposite of a Person, predates that collection, but is appearing in English now, translated, like her poetry, with empathy and clarity by Sophie Collins. It feels in a sense like the most modern book you could read: not only is the ostensible subject timely (climate change), but it also falls into a number of current literary trends.
For example, we are used in nonfiction to the genre-defying book – it is practically de rigueur now for nonfiction to blend essay, memoir and reportage – but Marsman brings this style to her novel, which combines fiction, essays and poetry. It also falls into what we might call “space literature”, a narrative formed of short paragraphs surrounded by white space, as practiced by authors such as Jenny Offill and Sarah Manguso, who use it to build gradual effects.
Marsman’s narrator is Ida, a climatologist in a relationship with another woman, Robin. Ida has been invited to take up an internship in the Italian Alps, where she will learn more about the human impact on the climate and about plans to demolish a hydroelectric dam: a symbol of that human impact.
Ida struggles to feel that she fits in – Collins in her translator’s note speculates that Ida is “neurologically atypical” – and, based on her mother’s assertion that people are evil, in childhood she wanted to be “the opposite of a person”. “I tried to ensure this by first of all learning to walk on my hands” and later “speaking as little as possible”.
This laconic approach persists in her narrative, where we don’t learn much about Ida’s relationship with Robin until the end, when a dramatic development comes that feels unearned. The prose is much more persuasive when in essay or reportage form; Marsman writes powerfully on natural as well as man-made disasters.
The essays spliced through the fiction are complex and rewarding and, like the narrative, address the question of belonging, reflecting, for example, on the limits of identity politics. “I regularly visit websites designed for lesbians and obediently watch every new film or series featuring a lesbian protagonist,” says Ida, noting that “a shared sexuality is no guarantee of a good conversation”. And it all leads back to the unignorable subject of climate change, which Ida links, in a fascinating essay on Copernicus, to humankind’s historic insistence that we must be at the center of the world. “Men are wretched by necessity,” she writes, quoting Giacomo Leopardi, “and determined to consider themselves wretched by accident.”
Ida, when reflecting on her struggles with people, observes that books are “friends” that are “funny, clever and available twenty-four hours a day”. Well, it’s not a laugh riot – what report of climate change is? – But otherwise, that’s a description you could apply to her own story of her.