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Review of "A Heart of Stone"

By Renate Dorrestein
Viking Press, 2001
Review by Su Terry on Nov 17th 2001
A Heart of Stone

This is a troubling and often unnerving novel about the not so uncommon disorder called 'postpartum neurosis.' It is troubling because psychological postpartum complications are still so common in our society, and it is so very unnerving because incidents like described in this novel can and do still occur. One has only to browse through the newspaper to read about sad cases and tragic outcomes of undiagnosed and untreated postpartum disorders. Renate Dorrestein's novel, A Heart of Stone is a chilling read.

A Heart of Stone is set in contemporary Holland. Ellen, a forensic pathologist and single mom-to-be, has returned to her childhood house to restore it and to await the birth of her first child. The house, however, is not as empty as it appears. It is filled with the ghosts and memories of the childhood tragedy that took the lives of her parents and three of her siblings, and left her a shattered ruin at the age of twelve. As Ellen flips through an old family photo album, she reflects back upon the year that she turned twelve and that Ida "the ugliest name I could think of, Ida rhymed with spider, and if you twisted the letters around and added a few more, you got diarrhea" was born. The story moves back and forth between the years before the tragic (1972/3), the years immediately following, and the present (twenty-five years later). The story is equally filtered and told through the eyes of Ellen as an innocent child, as a traumatized youth, and finally, as a medically trained adult about to give birth.

Renate Dorrestein is a best selling Dutch novelist. Beginning her writing career as a journalist, Dorrestein published her first novel, Outsiders, in 1983. Since then she has published a number of other novels that won her the Annie Romein Prize (1993) for originality and recognition as the runner-up for the Publieksprijs (1997) awarded to the most popular Dutch author of the year. A Heart of Stone is her first book translated into the English language and I am sure it will not be the last.

A Heart of Stone is an interesting blend of horror, humor, and mystery. The reader cannot but be horrified by the abusive actions of Ellen's mother as she slowly grows more psychotic in her thinking and behavior. (I was thoroughly frustrated by my own inability to call the police and child protective services on this woman!) Like a Steven Spielberg movie, however, Dorrestein blends horror and humor. Ellen and her sibling somehow manage to live a somewhat normal existence filled with all the laughter and tomfoolery that childhood can muster. The novel rapidly flies back and forth between tears and laughter, and occasional blends the two together as only a child's mind can when trying to grasp the inexplicable. Finally, there is a tense building of suspense and mystery. The reader knows what is ultimately coming, but is unsure exactly when it will occur. Like the members of Ellen's family, there is always a waiting for the other shoe to fall. There is also a sense of mystery, as characters from Ellen's and her parent's past move in and out of her new life. I could not help but wondering if Ellen, in her childhood innocence, had somehow gotten the facts wrong. What if there was more to the story then Ellen in her naivety knew? Is there more for her to learn about the crucial event that shaped her life? There is, but that would be telling! I was kept guessing to the very last page, so do NOT peek! A Heart of Stone is a hard and painful read that will make the read laugh, and cry, and gasp.

© 2001 Suzanne Garrison-Terry

    Suzanne Garrison-Terry
    Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, and a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary. She is currently completing a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University (July 2001). She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY.

    Interests in Mental Health: I am interested in the interplay between psychology and spirituality. My current research focuses on the role of hormonal fluctuation during puberty, pregnancy, and peri-menopause as a stimuli for mystical experiences. Through the study of autobiographical accounts of the mystical experiences of "historically accepted" female Christian mystics and additional biographical information, I am analyzing the connection between the onset of mystical experiences and biological data/symptomology for the potential existence of hormonal fluctuation or irregularity. If this sounds like an unusual topic, nota bene how many medieval female mystics began having "vision" on or about the age of 40!

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