Monday, February 23, 2015

Review: "Bonita Avenue" by Peter Buwalda

To say that Peter Buwalda’s debut novel, Bonita Avenue is not for everyone is quite an understatement. It can be gross and it can be brutally cynical to the point where it brings you to your knees. In that sense, it is very much like the work of fellow Dutch novelist Herman Koch, in where he revels in the underside of human connection, and likes picking at emotional scabs until they bleed. But for all those negative attributes I can attribute to this novel, it is also very entertaining and very enlightening, despite its grim, some would say too grim, outlook on modern life. It begs the question of whether ignorance is really bliss even when knowledge causes pain. The characters in this novel have many skeletons in their closets, and through sheer will and lack of moral compass, they have built lives around their mistruths and seem to have reached a state of balance in each of their lives. On the back of the book, a review compares it to the work of Franzen and Roth, although I feel that is inaccurate; Buwalda is a much braver and nastier writer than Franzen and he has none of the irony that Roth is known for. Even as the insults are flying, leaving people emotionally crippled, Buwalda keeps things serious, and when we laugh at the crazed events that take place in this book, we hate ourselves afterwards and question whether or not our own families are keeping this many screwed up secrets. The novel centers on Siem Sigerius, a former Judo champion and now a math professor at a prestigious Dutch college. He has a supporting wife and two stepdaughters, Joni and Janis, and tons of respect from colleagues and friends alike. It is only when Aaron, a photographer and the new boyfriend of his daughter Joni starts taking a much too keen interest in Siem’s past life do things begin to unravel for everyone. We find out about Seam’s past marriage, and his sociopathic son, who was sentenced to prison after beating a man to death with a sledgehammer. We also learn of Joni’s penitent for being a liar.  Along with these pieces of information, an explosion at a fireworks factory and Siem’s horrifying discovery about his daughter, this happy life begins to crumble violently.  As much as I liked and will highly recommend this book, there are some qualities that might detract some people, other than the subject matter. It is split up into three narrative threads, each in a different time period, which can be hard to juggle, and Siem’s wife and other daughter are mere extras to what is happening. But what is happening is quite glorious to behold. Unlike Franzen, this is a decidedly un-smug family tale, and Buwalda gives it plenty of room to breathe and become its own entity. From a grossly comic scene where Siem is caught in underwear that isn’t his, to the final brutal pages that went way past this books already nonexistent boundaries, this is a bitter, nightmarish tale of a family’s destruction and not something I’ll forget any time soon.
Rating: 5/5

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