The Safekeep

Image of The Safekeep
Release Date: 
May 28, 2024
Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

“an intimate novel, closely and brilliantly observed . . .”

The year is 1961, in a comfortable house in the rural provinces of Holland. Isabel’s family, escaping from Amsterdam, moved there during the war, into a house fully furnished, whose provenance they never questioned. Now Isabel’s mother has died, her two brothers (one of whom is gay) have moved out, and the house’s sole occupant, who’s nearing 30, seldom ventures forth from it.

Isabel, who as in English novels has a private allowance, idles about the house, seeing nobody but shopkeepers and her housekeeper, Neelke, whom she bedevils. When she does finally visit with her more worldly brothers, the social interactions are incredibly awkward—Isabel is monosyllabic and simply wants the encounter to end; she just won’t behave normally.

Things change when Isabel meets playboy brother Louis’ latest conquest, the flamboyant Eva. She’s openly hostile to the poor girl, judging her clothes, her dyed blonde hair, her taste in furnishings. But Eva seems oblivious to the bad behavior—she appears to like Isabel. The tension in all these scenes is almost unbearable—can nothing get through to this thoroughly unpleasant woman?

Adding to Isabel’s woes is the fact that the house is not really hers. It was promised to Louis, who doesn’t seem to want it. Brother Hendrick is about to take off for France, and he doesn’t care about any inheritance, either. Isabel has no real interest other than the house, but it isn’t really hers.

Things escalate when Louis impulsively drops Eva off at the house, announcing that he’s going abroad for a month. Eva can stay, can’t she? Isabel is beside herself, especially when Eva moves into her late mother’s room. Here’s the exchange:

“I suggest now would be a good moment to move your stuff. You won’t be staying in Mother’s room.”

Eva looked up at her. “Move my—”

“You won’t be staying in Mother’s room.”

“Your mother’s—”

“There’s a guest room on the third floor. I’ve left the windows open so it’s aired. Neelke will show you where to—”

“I’m sorry,” Eva hitched a breath in the shape of an apology. “Why would I be moving?”

Isabel had decided not to explain herself. “As I’ve said, you won’t be staying in Mother’s room.”

“It’s where Louis said I could stay.”

“Well, Louis is not here, and does not live here.”

“But it’s his house.” And, then, purposely kind, “As much as it’s yours.”

And so in Mother’s room Eva stays. She refuses to be shoved into a corner, and she repeatedly invades Isabel’s privacy. The status quo can’t hold, and it doesn’t. Isabel is manic about keeping everything in its place, and little items start disappearing. This is an intimate novel, closely and brilliantly observed, with characters that while not likable are perhaps explainable.

Isabel and Eva are bound to get to know each other better—after all, they’re together for a month. This leads to some completely unforeseeable circumstances and remarkably well-handled plot twists. Louis and Hendrick are off to a side; it’s a book about these two women, one cloistered, the other hardened by experience. One of them has ulterior motives that will eventually come clear, but it takes a while.  

The first part of the book has no sex, but the second has quite a bit, all of it graphic. The story goes through three distinct phases, none of which the reader is going to expect. The novel is all the better for it.

This is van der Wouten’s first novel, and it’s an accomplished debut. Writers as diverse as E.M. Forster and Nick Hornby are cited as influences, though it’s hard to get the Hornby—this book is not rom-com material. It could be quite a good movie, though, a psychological thriller with a slow build and a few jump scares. A double bill with films like Adore, Desert Hearts or Blue is the Warmest Color would work.