This book will fit in your pocket. For such a small work of fiction, it might seem like £12.99 is a lot to pay for the paperback. But if that is your thinking, I’m going to guess that you’ve never read Dimitri Verhulst before. Because in this 139 page edition the Dutch author, with the help of translator David Colmer, does more than many of his contemporaries could do in a trilogy. Not many writers can make me laugh out loud, but Verhulst does so at least once every ten pages. But he also brings me close to tears. And at the same time, he makes me think about things in a different way. So yeah, I’d say he’s pretty skilled.
The last book I read by this incredible author was The Misfortunates, in which he brought joyful humour and adroit consideration to the story of a socially deprived young boy living in a family of alcoholics. Four years later, and here he is again. This time, bringing those exact same things to a blackly comedic novel about old age and infirmity. At its centre is Desire Cordier, a man so despondent with his life as an elderly husband in a loveless marriage that he decides to fake his way into a dementia home.
If that idea strikes you as a little controversial, and perhaps even offensive, then Verhulst might not be for you. He does scrape a little close to the bone. But that said, when we read of Cordier’s dastardly plan we aren’t expected to fully sympathise with him. We see the horror of his plan, but still find it hard to resist the way in which he carries it out. The little tricks he plays on his family are demonstrated with a hugely impressive humour and comic timing that even a stick-in-the-mud will admire.
Even if you can’t sympathise with the protagonist’s plan, you will begin to thaw towards him once he is in the home. At this point, we see what the novel is really about. Because it isn’t just a nonchalant giggle and the old and infirm, but is instead a tender dramatisation of the difficulties inherent in aging in your body while your mind stays young. Desire has been driven to this precipice by a boredom and nostalgia that his brittle body will not allow to escape. And around him sit numerous examples of the other way he could’ve gone; the perhaps even more frightening prospect of the body surviving while the mind declines.
Any Cop?: 100% yes. It’s easy to mistake Verhulst for a comedic writer with a penchant for incredible one-liners. But he is so much more than that. Here is a writer who gets underneath the skin of society and makes you think of people and places that you might not usually think of. But even when the tales he tells are of people in such desperate circumstances, they are funnier than many of the most outwardly comic books. The Latecomer falls slightly short of The Misfortunates’ majesty, but they’re probably both as good or even better than what you’re planning to read next. £12.99 is a bargain.