Before I say anything else, can I just mention that this was my favourite read for Dutch Lit Month? It is also, easily, among my favourite reads of this year and may very well make it to the favourite books of all time list.
I mention this to prepare you for lots of gushing going on in this post. But, mind you, it is well-earned.
The Book of Everything is the story of a boy called Thomas. Thomas knows what he wants to be when he grows up: he is going to be happy. But he also knows that that’s easier said than done. Especially when you grow up in a household with a father who beats your mother and you. Thomas knows it might take a while before he finds happiness. In the meantime, he records everything he finds of note in his “book of everything”. These are small things, things that sometimes no one else can see. For example, he sees the magic of his neighbour Mrs. van Amersfoort and her efforts to help Thomas. He is struck by the beauty in a girl called Eliza, who has an artificial leg. And he sometimes talks to Jesus during the evening’s prayer.
I hardly know where to begin writing about this book. This may sound silly, but having read the book, and rereading that plot summary, it makes me feel all sentimental. The plot summary may sound deceptively simple, and also rather weird, or perhaps a little bit funny. And that’s exactly what makes this book so strong. It is deceptively simple. Just look at the idea of knowing that you want to be happy when you grow up, and imagine a child saying that instead of wanting to become a fireman or any other particular occupation; the thought of wanting to be happy is touching, and sweet, and also tinged with sadness. That is what this book does, it takes a difficult situation, and convincingly illustrates the difficulty, cruelty, and sadness of it, but manages to make it wonderful to read about at the same time, because it does end on a cheerful note.
Guus Kuijer needs few words to set a scene, to evoke feelings, and to make you long for a particular unfolding. By page two you feel as if you are familiar with the situation:
He heard his father coming home and thought, “It is half past five and I still don’t know what my book is about. What are books about, anyway?”
He asked this question during dinner.
“About love and things,” giggled his sister, Margot, who went to high school and was dumb as an ox.
But Father said, “All important books are about God.”
“They are about God as well as about love,” said Mother, but Father glared at her so sternly it made her flush.
“Who reads books in this family?” he asked.
“You do,” she said.
“So who should know what books are about, you or I?”
“You,” said Mother.
“When I grow up, I’m going to be happy,” Thomas thought, but he didn’t say it out loud. He looked at his mother and could see that she was sad. He wanted to get up and throw his arms around her, but he couldn’t do that. He didn’t know why, but it was simply not possible. He stayed where he was, in his chair.
There is your set up: a sister who is silly, a mother who is afraid of her husband but secretly has her own views, a father who is strict and overbearing and all of this in the name of his belief in God, and Thomas, who is lost and hopeful and torn and wonderfully easy to identify with.
But of course, things are not all as simple as that. And that is what I loved about The Book of Everything. Even though it is only a 117 page novel, every of the above characters is allowed to show more than one side of him or herself, and with that they are allowed to grow. Thomas soon finds out that Margot is not all that silly, and his Mother may just need a little push to flourish, and his father is overbearing but also scared. And Thomas? As he is told by Mrs. van Amersfoort, “[happiness] begins with no longer being afraid.” And that is exactly what Thomas learns to do, by accepting and appropriating help and tools offered by those around him. And the wonderful thing is watching Thomas see, appreciate, learn, and grow.
Among all the things I loved about this book was the fact that it offers so many strong women in its narrative. I admit it felt a little empowering to have women and girls just be regular persons, but also provide support to those around them. I also loved that you see Thomas try, and that he sometimes stumbles, and that he is sometimes wonderfully naive or a little bit too young to understand certain things. That he is allowed to feel lost, but also to persevere. Thus, this is not only the story of strong women, but also that of the abilities of children.
There is one reason why this book may not be for everyone, and that is the way in which Christianity appears in this book. Thomas talks to Jesus, and there is little reverence about it. Jesus tells Thomas to “Just call me Jesus.” Thomas sometimes questions God, that is, the God of his father, the one he considers violent, oppressive, and abusive: of his family, of women. During one of their talks, Jesus tells Thomas that he and his father have been on the outs since he had him crucified. As Guus Kuijer mentions in his introductory note, which chronicles the presumably fictional meeting with the older Thomas who’d like to recount the story of his younger self, the story can be considered irreverent or disrespectful. But, as Mr. Klopper explains to him: an unhappy childhood will make you irreverent.
I personally appreciated how Guus Kuijer handles the question of faith in this book. He questions the abuse of faith: he shows Thomas doubting God when he hears his father beat his mother. But he also shows how Thomas finds strength in his own interpretation of the Bible: the inspiration he finds to challenge his father in the story of the Ten Plagues in Exodus, and how his talks with Jesus stand in for a grounded parent unit providing support. Thomas may have little use for talks with Jesus, by the end of the book, but the big category of “faith” is never rejected outright. Instead, it shows how one might lose it because of its abuse. And The Book of Everything is also the story of having that more oppressive form of belief (which is something else than saying Christianity equals oppression) replaced by a faith in love and compassion (whether it be based in religion or humanity).
As you might have noticed, I cannot quite talk about this book without becoming sentimental. It is layered enough to want to talk about every single character arch, and every single occurrence. But the thing is, I can’t do that as yet. The book simply became too precious to me while reading it. By the end of the story, I had tears in my eyes. The book reflects such trust in humanity and love and friendship. It is so perfectly executed. This is definitely one of those books that I want to own and keep on my forever and ever shelf.
P.S. The sad thing is, the book only appears to be available as an ebook currently. I do hope it will be reprinted some time in the future. (I kind of need to push it on everyone I meet).