It’s one thing to suffer the disintegration of a family that had never been perfect but is at least surviving in the midst of all the new family-type constructions. It’s something else to hang out your family’s dirty laundry. This is something Mieke’s father drilled into her. Even though she finds family life so suffocating at times that she can barely catch her breath. It makes her feel like a fish that has fallen out of its aquarium and is flapping its gills in misery. Everyone thinks it’s applauding but actually it’s choking to death. […] somehow she’ll keep applauding no matter what the circumstances. She’ll keep her façade intact until the end of her days.
The Vandersanden family – Stefaan, Mieke and Sarah – live on a private estate in the mountains. It is 1980 when de Coster’s omniscient narrator guides us up the mountain, apprising us of the history of the residents and their social conventions. We land at the house on the day Sarah is born.
Stefaan, her father, is a manager at a large pharmaceutical firm. He had to abandon his dreams, at 28, of opening his own laboratory when a rival company threatened legal proceedings that would wipe him out before he began. Now, at 40, he thinks he’s reached the pinnacle of life:
He has finally been granted the title of father.
He has always told himself that he must not rest until he has reached that rarefied, precarious point: the top. It’s not everyone who makes up their mind one day to assume a leadership position, but such people do exist. These are people who don’t take orders from others but deal them out themselves. Arms crossed, shouting defiantly at the world: come on, I dare you.
There’s a problem with being at the top though…
Mieke met Stefaan at the notary’s office where she worked. Her inherited wealth and his work means that with the birth of their first child, she is to be a stay at home mum. There will be no nanny. Mieke had considered an abortion but as the years progress, Mieke’s family – including her rebellious brother who wanders in and out of their life as he please – become all she has. She doesn’t know who she is, she doesn’t recognise the man she’s married to, and she has a daughter who rebels against her.
We follow the family through to 2013 as Mieke’s attempts at keeping up appearances fail and the cracks become chasms.
The narrative voice moves between members of the family, giving alternative perspectives into people’s behaviour and an insight into each character’s psyche. It was interesting to see a European female writer take on what’s traditionally been seen as the bastion of the great white American men and provide a different take on the middle class family.
I’m delighted to welcome Saskia de Coster to the blog to discuss the novel further.
We and Me, despite being mostly set in Belgium, seems to me very much in the tradition of ‘The Great American Novel’: a family at the centre, an extended timespan, a backdrop of key events and some universal questions about humanity. Were you thinking about these things as you wrote the book and if not, where did your inspiration come from?
The spark for this novel came when I noticed I had started to repeat some of my mother’s favourite sayings.. Although we are very different people and I rebelled against my upper class upbringing , I had wanted to write the story of my youth for a long time, not as a form of cheap therapy but because I can see how life in the upper classes, where We and Me is set, is emblematic of life in Western Europe: characters filled with fear struggle to survive, even though they live a seemingly very comfortable life in a perfect setting where luxury is the norm. Neighbours in these posh neighbourhoods like to keep a close watch on each other as showing off is a big part of their lives. Inside their homes and behind the facade, family members look for their own chance to be free, on their own, not as a family: the father has his hobby shed, the mother has a neurotic obsession with combing her carpets and Sarah, the daughter, flees to her grunge band The Lady Dies (named after Lady Di – We and Me is set between 1980 and 2013).
There seems to be a pre-occupation in the publishing industry as to how likeable and engaging protagonists are. None of your key characters are particularly likeable; did it worry you how readers might react to them?
To me, that is one of the main challenges a writer should set herself: to not just bring to the fore obvious, likeable protagonists and let the reader develop some kind of very self-evident relationship with them, but to carve out the characters over the course of the novel and the years in the narrated time, so that they have more depth. On first sight, the mother Mieke is a completely horrible, neurotic, uptight and stuck-up woman, but throughout the novel, she’s actually the person with the most inner strength and a kind of admittedly tough love. Mieke is the one who develops a certain strength under very dramatic circumstances. Writing in her logic made me understand the logic and reasonings of my own mother and women like her much better.
The novel is a multi-narrative moving mostly between three key characters; did writing from different perspectives provide any particular challenges?
Yes challenges and opportunities. There is not one way of seeing things – e.g. while Stefaan digresses more and more and falls into a deep depression, even though he’s a hot shot at work, his wife Mieke starts to enjoy life more and breaks free without noticing the changes in his behaviour. One can argue she, from her point of view, does everything she can to make Stefaan’s life better but he sees it completely differently, from his side.
We and Me is translated into English by Nancy Forest-Flier; did you work closely with her on the translation? How do you feel about having your words translated into another language?
A translation is like a second life for a book: It becomes different with the words being changed into another language but the core is still the same somehow. Nancy Forest-Flier did an excellent job on the translation and improved the book, as only really outstanding translators can do. She also noticed some inconsistencies including a mistake in a scene between two subway stations in New York (it seemed as if they were only 500 meters apart).
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite women writers?
Well, my all time favourite is (of course) the genius Virginia Woolf. However nowadays, a great many strong female authors have emerged, to name but a few of my favourites: Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Jennifer Egan, Ali Smith (all of them not so new), Chris Kraus, Maggie Nelson, Valeria Luiselli, …
Thanks to Saskia de Coster for the interview and to World Editions for the review copy.