Evil a-Plenty

Eerie tales reveal adults wreaking havoc on kids.

There's a line early in the opening story of Anna Enquist's fine new collection that chills the reader. In more ways than one.

It's January in the Netherlands, 1849. A man and his two sons are ice fishing for flounder out on the Zeiderzee and the sun is setting. They've already caught nearly 700 fish, and the other fishermen have headed off the ice. The 16-year-old central character wants to get home and read before bed, but his father isn't satisfied. "We'll do one more turn," he says--firmly in the category of famous last words. "They're coming so well today."

You know some die is cast. You hope it's not the kid's.

It's adults' selfish or thoughtless actions--or straightforward perverse exploitation of children--that loosely binds these stories.

Dutch author Enquist was a psychoanalyst before she turned to writing poetry and fiction, and her interest in human motivation and behavior is evident throughout the work. Characters obsess; they self-medicate, self-delude and sexually repress.

Several of the stories are told from the point of view of a child trying to make sense of senseless situations. In "Sweets," for example, an 11-year-old girl, overweight and self-conscious, attempts to connect with her father, who's "quarantined" for an unexplained illness. (Radioactive contamination is suggested, but nothing is shared with the girl.) Her means of dealing with his absence, her mother's distant behavior and the inexplicable attentions of the man next door drive her to console herself with gingerbread, chocolate chip sandwiches, bags of frosted cream cakes. Her mother's own artfully exposed, slender and tanned body only serves to complicate the child's understanding of herself. The reader is left wishing fixes were as simple as chocolate chip sandwiches.

Two of the more memorable stories have bases in historical fact. The flounder fisherman's tale ("The Crossing") is based on an incident in which a man and his two sons actually floated for 14 days on an ice floe. Enquist's rendering of it is minimalist, objective and starkly compelling. As the younger son keeps track of the days on his fingers, his brother's feet swell "big as cabbages, dark red and black," and their father, mute and senseless, has "become a flounder," leaning off the floe and sinking toward the sea.

The unlikely "Greek Soccer" combines a child's compensating for the unknowable with another recurring element--sports. In the story, the family of a dyke builder lives on an artificially created island. The child-narrator sees the island as a "flower in a pond ... a stalk that sprouted from the bottom of the sea; between boulders and rough waterplants it rose up month after month," but it's hardly hospitable. It's not just the sea, the cold, the grassless, treeless, bleak environment that the child has to fear, though. It's also the muscular teacher who arrives on the island and sets about turning the children of the community into a new Sparta to wage soccer war on the "old world." Its ending in fire and water resonates beyond the literal.

Water, soccer, men and children make another unhealthy mix in the sobering "The Finals." At world soccer finals time, a young Dutch woman is camping with her boyfriend in France. Uncomfortable with the crowded camp and the territoriality of the permanent seasonal residents who gut their fish where she's washing her lettuce, resentful of the pressure of her boyfriend to go French--i.e., topless--and mix more actively with other campers, she fortifies herself with cup after cup of wine. She's fairly drunk, then, when France and Holland meet on the soccer field, the action picks up around the common television set, and she realizes that her boyfriend and the little girl she'd identified as sexually abused are missing.

That the woman is a professional with abused children intensifies the dilemma of whether she should act to protect herself or the child. Enquist neither romanticizes nor rationalizes the question of responsibility of adult to child.

Used as we are to ambiguity, we're not disconcerted when some of Enquist's stories leave questions unanswered: What follows "The Finals"? What's the effect of the dead-air time in a radio interview? Does the "Sweets" father survive? What happens when someone refuses medical treatment (as in the title story)? But, in a surprise twist, Enquist brings some of these up again in her final story.

In that story ("The Harbour"), Enquist hits us with some coincidences. She lends point of view to a different character and sets up a new situation--but she resnags earlier characters. Though it's ostensibly a conflict within a disturbed doctor, Enquist turns the tale into an examination of the nature of personal realities ... and then an examination, perhaps, of the nature of the impulse to write fiction. Whom, in fact, she seems to ask, are characters created for? Could they and their tales have been written to accompany the writer on her own journey?

Enquist is a craftsperson of cleanly etched diction, syntax and imagery. She sets light up against dark, creates harmony and control and produces domestic tales in unadorned prose that foreground human action and reveal human nature. Her novel The Secret was chosen by Dutch readers as Book of the Year in 1997. Given writing this appealing, it's no wonder.

Her life for kids isn't easy, though. Stock up on the cream cakes.