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Kees Visscher. Martha.

Kees Visscher. Martha. Groningen, The Netherlands. Uitgeverij Noordboek. 2004. 112 pages. 12.50 [euro]. ISBN 90-330-1184-0

SOMETIMES A STORY COMES ALONG that is so captivating in its telling and so affecting in its impact that it leaves the reader deeply gratified for having discovered it. Martha is such a story. Its charm and power lie in the simple eloquence of the narrator's voice and in the innocent purity of its subject: the love between the unnamed narrator and Martha Cohen.

The boy is instantly lovestruck when he first spies the little girl with the black curls and big round eyes in kindergarten. Later, he writes stories for her and about her. The fairy tales, especially, eventually bring them together. Martha is attracted by the stories, and then to the writer. When Martha reciprocates the love, the boy feels as if he's entering paradise. But there's a snake in the garden. The Cohens are the only Jewish family in the small Dutch town in northern Holland. The school bullies often tease and taunt the two young lovers mercilessly. Sometimes the Cohens surfer cruel mockery. Besides, it's wartime, and Hitler is mounting his sinister campaign for the "final solution": the extermination of the Jews. The anti-Semitism falls as a shadow between the two children at first, and then as a thick curtain when Martha is no longer allowed to attend the same school and is forced to wear a yellow star. Nevertheless, the narrator never wavers in his absolute loyalty to her. When at last the deportation orders come, the children have become adolescents and spend one last time together, briefly dreaming of a future together. Then a fleeting good-bye kiss, and the evening mist swallows both of them. It's a powerfully poignant moment for the reader, who knows the parting is final. Martha's return to her devoted lover comes only in a vision, years later, in which she makes him promise to keep writing.

Perhaps the writing of Martha is the keeping of that promise. And though it is but a brief story, it is first rate: impressive in its skillfully controlled language, its carefully modulated balance between the youth of the characters and their depth of feelings, and in its masterful unity of character, action, and theme.

Henry J. Baron

Calvin College
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Author:Baron, Henry J.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2005
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