Book of the week : Bonita Avenue - Peter Buwalda

“If everything Gerrit said was true, then it was awful for his father, really and truly, but what did a judo club in Delft have to do with the war in Asia?” This strange question, one of thousands in Bonita Avenue, the debut novel by Dutch journalist Peter Buwalda, is asked by Siem Sigerius. By day, he’s a university professor, maths genius, intellectual celebrity in Holland and revered patriarch, albeit with father issues. He’s sufficiently beloved that a paparazzi snap of his naked torso is a cause for jovial celebration, not public shame

However, behind the illusion of charmed life, things aren’t as they seem. Siem has a dark secret. His son from a previous marriage is in prison serving time for murder and few people know about it. He flirts with a friend’s adopted Burmese daughter, and when one of his students breaks off an affair because he won’t leave his wife, Sigerius turns for comfort to online pornography. Only too late does he realise that the star of his favourite website is his own stepdaughter, Joni. That would be enough of a story for most novels, but here it’s just the start: the drama skyrockets after a government shake-up makes him a candidate for education secretary - and blackmail

These events are told in retrospect, at first from the point of view of Joni’s schizophrenic ex-boyfriend Aaron, a photographer pinging heartbroken emails across the Atlantic to Joni, who is now a mother and porn baron in Los Angeles. Of all the characters only Joni gets to tell her own story, with the effect that Aaron and Sigerius’s jealous claims on her look clueless

The gonzo scenario keeps the novel buzzing on a steady current of shock and shame. At two points the plot turns on men caught pants-down with women’s fashion accessories in hand, which might be one reason why Buwalda makes Sigerius an expert on probability. A cut-up time scheme leaves storylines dangling for hundreds of pages without turning the novel into a guessing game - there are too many threads for any single known unknown to dominate

Buwalda, like many contemporary novelists working in the school of hyper-realism, artfully embeds his digressive narrative technique into the story itself. The anonymous internet high jinks of Siem and his daughter provide proxies for meditations on slippage of identity, as does Aaron’s predilection for plagiarising stories, not to mention his wild, and possibly schizophrenic hallucinations. The inescapable emotional enmeshing of his dramatis personae is traced by chance encounters - the novel begins with a strange meeting between Aaron and Joni’s mother, Tineke - and allegorised by Siem’s obsession with “knot theory, a branch of mathematics that attempts to understand the number of ways in which a piece of rope can be tied”

Critics have hailed this as fiction fit for the internet age. And it’s tempting to see this novel-as-endlessly-unspooling-algorithm as a progression of the form. Realising his political ambitions have been scuppered by the sins of his children, Sigerius expresses his disappointment as a mathematical equation: “A son who bashed a man to death and a daughter turning tricks on the internet. Porn times murder, behold the formula of his life”

For the most part, however, its claustrophobic fictional universe feels curiously, and pleasingly, old-fashioned. In Bonita Avenue, Buwalda has created a sprawling family drama which despite its relatively long length (it is over 500 pages long) flows like a thriller. It’s wonderfully written, with an excellent translation by Jonathan Reeder. In the Netherlands the book received  unprecedented critical acclaim and sold over 300.000 copies. It subsequently went on to win two literary prizes while being nominated for two more

As the family finally completes its descend into madness, you’ll be profoundly shocked by the dark finale. An impressive chronicle of one family’s downfall

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