In the early 1950’s a fourteen year old boy is sent to stay for an extended summer visit with a group of elderly relations in an old house in Flanders, near the Belgian border. Michael Jenkins writes in a brief preface that the story was based on a real event in his childhood “but owes much to his imagination”, whichever way it doesn’t matter, what does is that this is a wonderful book.
Michael has heard of these relations but never met them and is not surprisingly a little apprehensive, ‘But as I passed through the brick gateway…I believe I had some premonition that a new life was about to unfold. And if after only a day the world I had left behind seemed already remote, within a week I no longer knew which was reality, the coldness and austerity of my existence in post-war England, or the dense fabric of extended family by which I was embraced, and within whose lives I had become entwined.’
The boy’s new family consists of six elderly aunts and a war damaged uncle who is constantly trying to escape to the village for a drink, as well as various cousins, one who becomes the boy’s first love. The boy gets to know his new ‘relations’ one by one, starting with the warm and wise doyenne of the family Tante Yvonne, and as he does he also learns more about the house, the past, the people around them – and why he was sent to stay there.
A House in Flanders is a very short book, a scant 157 pages with quite large type in my edition, but it evokes more of a sense of time, of place and of character than many a book three times its length. It’s beautifully written without a wasted word and one of those rare books where you slow down your reading pace because you’re both savouring every word and don’t want to have to leave this little world. Dirk Bogarde described it in a review when it first came out in 1992 as ‘this is perfect, simple prose at its best…a radiant book’. The Sunday Telegraph says it was ‘A little gem of a book.’
They’re both right.