‘Rauw & Alsof’ by Valerie Tack: Feeling Empathy for the Murderer
In her debut novel, Valerie Tack unpicks how a young woman, marked by life, slowly but surely turns into a cold-blooded murderer. She does this so skilfully that you end up understanding and feeling compassion for her actions.
Although there is some talk of a reading pandemic at the moment, the book trade does not have it easy. A survey by the NRC Handelsblad newspaper shows that publishers are hesitant to bring new fiction to the market, with debut authors in particular paying the price. New titles are postponed, sometimes indefinitely. Debuting now makes little sense, says Caroline Damwijk, director of the Libris bookshops chain in the Netherlands.
And yet Flemish author Valerie Tack (b. 1981) did. The launch of her debut novel Rauw & alsof (Raw & Pretence) was scheduled for Friday 13 March, just before cafés and restaurants were obliged to close their doors, and a more reckless part of the Belgian population was hastily throwing “lockdown parties”. Officially, the launch could have gone ahead, but author and publisher let health and common sense prevail over additional publicity.
It is unlikely that the narrator portrayed by Tack in Rauw & alsof would have acted as solicitously, given she is a merciless woman. Already on the first page, we learn that she – called “devil’s child” by her father and “Sunday’s child” by her mother – has committed a murder, some eighty pages earlier than the revelation of the murderer’s identity in Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky.
What is more, this was no accidental murder. On the second page, she arranges on her kitchen table the things she has stolen from the dying man while calling an ambulance from his mobile. Among them is also a scrap of paper on which she had hastily scribbled down her phone number three months earlier. ‘I break down and meanwhile I neatly tear the piece of paper along its folded lines. So as not to destroy even more.’
Rauw & alsof is a debut novel as one rarely finds in our literature.
In what follows, we slowly learn what brought this woman to stab and kill her lover twelve weeks after they met. Or rather, during what came before, because the carefully observed reverse chronology of this fatal love story is one of the features that make this whydunit so good. The affair between perpetrator and victim, who calls his lover Bird, is patiently unpicked. The game of push and pull, the exciting dynamic of the secret relationship between a woman and a married man, the reservations and the thrills, the feeling of passion and guilt, it is all there.
That love story is interrupted by 21 “film slides”, which weave through the narrative like an old-fashioned family pastime. That family gathering is rarely enjoyable, as Bird comes from the type of nest you do not emerge from intact. There were certainly some good, beautiful moments, but they fade quickly. It is the bad experiences that have etched deep marks in this woman’s life. Everything that comes later can be more or less traced back to her upbringing: the chaotic life, alcohol abuse, sleeping around, theft, and yes, murder too.
No matter how mercilessly Bird settles scores with her past, there is something vulnerable about her as well, which makes her likeable and even a little bit irresistible at times. She is certainly capable of love, although it is warily and never for long. Tack has written her story in such a way that we foster sympathy for this woman, understand her, accept her desire for drama. She is ice queen and flamboyant fury in one, an intriguing character that you increasingly want to know more about.
Stylistically, Tack does not do overstatement, use fancy words, or an overly complicated plot. Her writing is sharp, with a sense of cadence and an eye for detail. Sometimes it is surprisingly simple, with sentences made up of few words, but still meaningful. For example, during the reception after the father’s funeral: ‘I ask her why she stayed with him all this time. Him, I say. Not father, dad or daddy.’ The story has enough subtle hints to the murderer’s motives to be completely credible. From a lesser writer, this story and way of writing might quickly get boring, but Tack’s style only increases the tension and the desire to delve more deeply into this woman’s life. Black humour regularly provides some relief.
All the above makes Rauw & alsof a dark book, an inquiry into the darkest caverns of a seemingly normal mind, and a debut novel as one rarely finds in our literature.
Excerpt from ‘Rauw & alsof’, as translated by Paul Vincent
Excerpt 1 - pp. 11-12
He is no longer lying on the roadway, where I left him about ten minutes ago, but a little further on, collapsed against the wall he had pushed me roughly up against earlier in the evening. He must have dragged himself there, there is a trail of blood. He holds one arm clamped against his belly, as if to staunch the wounds, but there are too many of them. His other arm lies against his body, with the palm facing upwards. A passer-by might leave some change in it, but no one comes this way. His shirt is drenched. He feels icy cold. If I don’t do something quickly, he’ll bleed to death here in the street, against this wall, though I’m not at all sure I want that.
‘Help,’ he whispers, ‘help me, please.’
His voice cracks and I stroke his hair. I try to calm him. I squeeze his cold hand and caress the inside of his arm with my fingertips. I don’t think he recognises me.
‘Help is coming,’ I say, ‘Help is coming soon.’
I call an ambulance on his mobile. I give the address and describe the condition he is in. ‘He’s still breathing, but there’s blood, blood everywhere. He’s been mugged, I think.’
‘Hurry up,’ I add. ‘He’s in a bad way.’
I slide his mobile into my coat pocket. Then I take his watch. And his wallet, which is in the inside pocket of his jacket. Then I leave him behind, for the second time. For good.
Excerpt 2 - pp. 113-114
That’s how father looks at me, since Freddie’s death. Right through me. As if I don’t exist.
We are sitting at table and my little brother asks if we’ll be getting a new dog.
‘Perhaps,’ says mother, ‘but not yet.’ She serves everyone a beef olive and urges us, father too, to take enough vegetables.
I look at father. Sneakily. Cautiously. I don’t want to confront him.
‘We won’t be getting a new dog,’ he says loudly and bangs his fist on the table.
As we do the washing up, while father watches the news and for the umpteenth time my brother bends sighing and cursing over his homework, mother whispers to me that father misses Freddie too. That he feels sad too. That it takes time. That grief becomes blunted. That I couldn’t help it, father knows that too, and that I’ll definitely have a new dog before long.
‘I don’t want a new dog,’ I say. ‘I want Freddie.’ I drop the tea towel and run outside, to the dogs’ compound. The gate is open. To the left of the wooden kennel that father knocked together with his own hands, are two toys that have been gnawed to bits. A green, plastic bone and a red rubber ball. I sit down on the cold concrete, reach for the toys and look at the farmhouse through the bars. Seen from here it has promise. Like a paradise, a place full of surprises and possibilities.
An illusion. I think of Freddie’s short life, which he spent mostly here. In this compound of two by three metres. I throw the toys into a corner of the compound, jump up and start kicking the bars.
Suddenly father is there. He must be on the way to one of his bottles. He sticks his hand through the bars and puts it on my head.
He says: ‘Calm down, little girl.’
And then he tells me something I didn’t know. That when I was at school, he would often take Freddie with him, to the cowsheds and also to the fields. Even on the tractor. And that in the afternoon Freddie was allowed into the kitchen for a moment, with mother and him, and was give scraps from lunch. I have to cry, because I don’t know why father is sometimes so sweet and sometimes so terribly mean.
Valerie Tack, Rauw & alsof, Houtekiet, Antwerpen, 2020, 294 pp.