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The Virgin Mary as a woman of flesh and blood. Handsome debut novel by Dieuwertje Mertens

It is sometimes said of reviewers that they actually wish they were writers themselves. A cliché, of course, but perhaps also somewhat true. Dieuwertje Mertens (b. 1983), literary critic of The Parool, smiles affirmatively. "Yes, look, I HAVE written a book, so obviously I want to be an author too. But not instead of. I love reading and reviewing very much. I wouldn't want to do without that. Precisely because I know how much is published, I felt that my book should be distinctive enough, not a thirteen-in-a-dozen story. Mothers. Saints has become a novel of which I dare to say: I am happy with this. This is the best I had to give right now."

Handsome debut

Average is Mothers. Saints indeed certainly not. Main character Mercedes stays with her lover Amant in the cottage where his mother Marian lived for a long time, in the French hamlet of Albas. She crashed near there, but they do not know the exact circumstances. With Marian with them in an urn, they move into the cottage, because not only Amant, but Mercedes too has something to deal with. There is something about her son Lode. And besides, things between her and Amant are not really working out either.


At one point, Mary, standing motionless on her pedestal in the village square, seems to throw a lifeline to the lonely, distraught and weary Mercedes. Thus they become, as it were, in conversation with each other; the women reflect on their roles in the world and the Bible and the position of women as mothers, saints and sexual beings.

The stories of Mercedes' new village friends, former actress Clémence and Congolese refugee Graziella, also make one think about existing male-female relationships, parenthood, sex and power.

Bible background, cultural history, feminism - Mothers. Saints is not only a book with substance and topical themes, but also a strongly physical novel. The good dosage and build-up, and certainly the sultry, grim atmosphere from the start, create a pleasant subcutaneous tension.

All freedom

"The writing was a joy," says Mertens with a smile on her face. "I gave myself every freedom, at the same time I was very critical - there mustn't be one sentence too many and nothing is there by chance, everything has a meaning. Clémence, a delightful character who loves telling strong stories, says at one point: it doesn't matter what you tell, what matters is how you tell something."

Besides Mercedes, Maria has a starring role. What fascinates you about her?

"In my childhood in Brabant, Catholicism played an important role. I made my communion and confirmation and sang every Sunday in a Gregorian choir in St John's. Our Sweet Lady is very important there. So Mary was really a character in my childhood.

A few years ago I was on holiday in France, somewhere on the Lot. There was basically nothing there, just deserted villages and statues of Mary. That's where my gaze kept being drawn to. Mary is the most depicted woman and mother in the Western world, and actually we know very little about herself. No more than that she was the mother of Jesus, or rather she was a womb, finished, that was her only function. As if she was an object of use. The woman who created the Saviour! Later, all sorts of myths and stories were made up about her, and out of interest, I started reading more and more about her. But that a novel would come out of it... It was born out of style. Suddenly there was a narrator in my head, a voice that started speaking in a certain tone and rhythm. I have to write this down, I thought. Then I felt I was onto something."

Was that the Mary figure? Did she speak to you the same way she speaks to Mercedes?

"No, it was Mercedes herself, the woman addressing Mary. I started listening to that voice. I heard all kinds of short, staccato phrases, and I started writing them down. That was later joined by Mary, with whom I was so much involved anyway. In church history and in the Bible, women usually have a secondary role. But Mary, a woman about whom we know so little, is such a great source of inspiration - it is unbelievable how many myths and miracle stories are attached to her and how great an influence she has had on the image of women and mothers in our Western world."

In what way is that image of women defined by her?

"The common idea about motherhood is that a mother should be sacrificial and take on most of the child's upbringing. You can see this in Mary worship: in the stories, she is someone who sacrifices herself for her child. The Catholic Church exerted a lot of influence on ideas about how women should be. Demure, pious, submissive. Docile. Notions that were conceived and passed on by men, because they were mainly the ones who wrote down such stories. Mary's 'immaculate conception' has often been misinterpreted as 'virgin pregnancy', but it actually means that she was not burdened with original sin. Nonetheless, Mary has become in lore mainly as the virgin, obliging mother.

I wanted to contrast that with something: a flesh-and-blood woman who also experiences lust. In my opinion, she was much more rebellious than she is portrayed in the Bible. I think it would be good for more women to reflect on who Mary could have been and the patriarchal mindsets that were foisted on her. That's why I wanted the novel to show how stories carry over into the present. Even though today we may think we are rid of this kind of thinking, in the background all those stories that have shaped us are still there."

As a wife and mother yourself, have you noticed this?

"Yes. I see myself as a feminist and look critically at my own role and how I raise my children. But after their birth, despite my intentions, I fell back into that fixed pattern of doing the most and taking myself away. Even though I had thought in advance that I would not do that, it happened anyway, because it was so expected. I also saw it around me: when I was walking down the street with the pram, I would encounter mainly women with their buggies in the park or at the edge of the sandpit. Then I saw how fixed those roles actually still are."

Another novel men should read, then?

"Certainly! Men are also readers, sons with mothers, lovers, lovers, part of society. My novel exposes something about the relationships between men and women, mothers and sons, parents and children. The relationship between Mercedes and her son Lode is complex. You cannot choose which child to have, which can sometimes be disappointing or difficult. Also children are often seen as holier, more innocent than they are."

How do we escape those models?

"By piercing myths, like the mother/mother myths surrounding Mary, telling other stories and showing other perspectives. I hope my six-year-old daughter will grow up with a different view of humanity. I think this is already changing among younger generations too; for them, those binary oppositions are less important - we are all human. Once, when my daughter was only four, we were at a hardware store. 'Bye baby,' the man behind the till said. 'I'm not your sweetheart,' she replied. And when he said 'bye darlings' again after the checkout, she got angry and shouted with her hands at her sides: 'I think you're a stupid sir.' Where she got that from, no idea - I've never been that assertive. Those girls of her generation don't let themselves be bullied anymore."

Dieuwertje Mertens, Mothers. Saints (340 p.), Querido, €24.99

About the author

Dieuwertje Mertens (b. 1983) is a journalist, literary critic and moderator. She has worked as a reviewer and interviewer for Het Parool since 2009. She also regularly writes for Vrij Nederland on social developments in art and literature. For VPRO, she made several RadioDocs, such as Vroeger waren mannen aardiger [Men used to be nicer].


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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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