The Melting by Lize Spit

Only three children are born in 1988 in Bovenmeer, a small, isolated village in Flemish-speaking Belgium: Eva, Laurens and Pim. It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that they grow up close friends: theirs is a small community and they're shunted into a class for older children where they're often left to fend for themselves. But as they grow older, their bond becomes fractured by adolescent sexuality, the sudden death of Pim's older brother and the Belgian school system, which sees Laurens and Eva attend an academic secondary school while Pim, destined to take over the family farm, is sent to a vocational college.

Eva's alcoholic mother and depressed, unstable father are neglectful at best and abusive at worst, and she and her older brother Jolan attempt to keep an eye on their hyper-anxious, fearful little sister Tessa. Tessa bears the burden of being named after Jolan's dead twin, which gives you some idea of the general atmosphere in their loveless household.

Small wonder, then, that 14-year-old Eva is desperate to keep her friendship with Laurens and Pim as her only escape from the misery of her home life. But how far will she go to keep the Three Musketeers together? 

Thirteen years later, Eva is living in Brussels, where she has given up her university studies and has a disturbing, dysfunctional sexual relationship with a neighbour she dislikes, when she's invited to an event a Pim's farm to mark what would have been his brother Jan's 30th birthday. Eva's memories of her 14th summer in Bovenmeer appear to be traumatic. What happened that year? And why is she so determined to go back, carrying a large block of ice in the boot of her car?

Translated from the Dutch, Lize Spit's novel The Melting and was apparently an international bestseller before being published in English, and I can see why it would have attracted attention. It's a bleakly shocking read - I believe 'unflinching' would be word a publisher would use - and at times, truly disturbing. It reads partly as a dark coming-of-age tale, partly as a psychological mystery, and it is hard not to want to know how the story will resolve. One of the 'games' that Laurens and Pim play with Eva is to make local girls solve a riddle or perform a humiliating forfeit, and in many ways the whole book is a riddle that the author gradually unpicks through Eva's point of view - a point of view which varies in its reliability. There are multiple character-driven plot threads, but they're all woven into Eva's own story, and unfortunately it's a story that's relentlessly and oppressively depressing, not to mention frequently squalid. Even the flat, empty, dull landscape of Bovenmeer and its environs is miserable, and that's even before we look at the themes of suicide, grief, bullying, abuse, neglect and more. 

Without revealing any spoilers, I will also say that there is a lengthy description of a truly brutal act of very specific violence against an adolescent child which I found almost impossible to read - and I am not, in general, a sensitive reader. It's so stark and unabating that although it has an incredible power to shock and horrify us - and it absolutely should - that I almost found myself disassociating from it rather than bearing witness and trying to understand the impact.*

By the time I'd finished reading The Melting I felt like I wanted to have a bath to scrub myself clean. It's not that it's a poorly-written novel, although there were a couple of times when I found myself questioning the translation: the prose is cleverly constructed and vivid throughout, and Spit particularly excels at making mundane or banal things and situations seem fundamentally threatening or jarring. But where it falls down is in its lack of variety. Compare The Melting, for example, to Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain. Stuart's novel is also full of abuse, neglect, poverty, cruelty, bullying, alcoholism and endless misery, and yet it still has some notes of warmth and affection to it: for want of a better word, it has a heart. There's a note of hope and redemption to Shuggie Bain, a sense that the past can be overcome and left behind for the better. This is what's missing from The Melting, and as such - while it's fully understandable that Eva's story unfolds in the way it does from the first page to the last, it makes for a one-note reading experience, and that note is such a unpleasant one that this is a book I'd struggle to recommend.

*If you like to see trigger warnings for disturbing content in books, please highlight the bullet points below to read them:

  • Rape and sexual violence
  • Sexual humiliation
  • Suicide and suicidal ideation
  • Child neglect
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Eating disorder
  • Alcoholism
  • Baby loss
  • Deaths of siblings
  • Domestic abuse