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'Stenen Eten' by Koen Caris: Escape From a Suffocating Village
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© Jonathan Ybema / Unsplash
© Jonathan Ybema / Unsplash © Jonathan Ybema / Unsplash
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'Stenen Eten' by Koen Caris: Escape From a Suffocating Village

A seemingly ordinary Dutch village is rocked by a spate of teenage suicides. In Stenen Eten (Eating Stones), Koen Caris exposes just how difficult it is to be left behind, especially in an oppressive, village setting.

There are the Stay-Behinds, a group of young people who never left for the big city after finishing school, whether to study or otherwise. And the Park Girls, a group of straight girls who are more interested in branded clothing than rebelling. In Ben’s village, young people are divided into categories, which keeps the social structure easy to navigate.

To which group does he belong, or does he want to belong? He hasn’t a clue. He forms a casual trio with Tom and Hettie. This happened almost imperceptibly. One day they waited for him at the school gates back when, three years ago now, he had, unfortunately, become the centre of everyone’s attention. His sister Kim, the prettiest girl in the village, had taken her life on her eighteenth birthday. The railway line on the outskirts of town is the silent witness of this still.

Thereafter, the villagers, especially his peers at school, awkwardly seek him out. But he prefers to be invisible, as many teenagers do. But if your dead sister is actually the heart of the village, you just want to disappear completely. Tom and Hettie are his protective armour. With his mother, who is severely depressed, he can sometimes manage a joke, but they do not talk about what happened that night, especially not since Ben’s father left them. Living side by side under the same roof, they are unable to share their grief. Not even on the night they go out for dinner when Ben turns eighteen. The memories of what happened three years earlier hang over events like a dark cloud.

In his debut novel Stenen Eten (Eating Stones), Koen Caris tells the story from Ben’s point of view, and that is one of the strengths of this book. By looking at everything only from Ben’s perspective, and never switching the narrative voice, he shows how stifling it can be to grow up in such a village. Especially if something dramatic happens that all of a sudden makes the world seem totally different, and adult and teenage worlds collide. In that sense, this debut shows similarities with De avond is ongemak (The Discomfort of Evening), the widely acclaimed debut novel by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld.

Ben wants to shut himself off, but eventually does seek solace, even from Jack, the toughest boy in the village who was Kim’s boyfriend when she ended her life. Many people in the village of course blame Jack for Kim’s suicide but Ben senses that, like him and his mother, Jack may be the only one who also understands what it’s like to be left behind.

Koen Caris’s previous experience in writing for theatre leaves a mark in the strong composition of his debut novel

Meanwhile, the village is rocked by more suicides that tear families to shreds, causing the villagers to focus even more on Ben and his mother. What do they know? What is causing all this? Ben retreats even more. He is addicted to a documentary about Navy Seals who successfully endure torture, a trait he wishes to acquire. And he discovers love, which to his surprise is reciprocated. He fucks himself numb, which jeopardises his friendship with Tom and Hettie. Doesn’t that make him even more isolated?

Stenen eten (Eating Stones) is an impressive debut novel that conveys the searing oppression of this village in plain language. Caris has written for theatre, which leaves its mark in the strong composition of the book. Caris also pens a very believable character here, a troubled boy trying to find his way through life.

Throughout, the story is brimming with beautiful sentences that show Caris’s promise as a writer. “I don’t like being in other people’s houses, I don’t want to see how well managed their lives are,” he has Ben say at the beginning. Only later does Ben discover that behind all those tidy facades also hide dark secrets. And that all of us remain strangers, or, as Ben so beautifully puts it: “Suddenly it feels insane that these are the people I know best; we have no idea who we are.”

An excerpt from 'Stenen eten', as translated by Paul Vincent

Four beeps each time, followed by a short silence.

Beep, beep, beep, beep. Silence.

Beep, beep, beep, beep. Silence.

To begin with, the sound is so faint that think I can ignore it this time. But that is false security, because after every five repetitions the volume rises to the point where even through the wall the beeping is so shrill that it seems to come from my own head. Morning bird, the manufacturer calls it. I turn to the wall and pull my pillow over my face.

In my favourite documentary members of the Navy SEALs are interviewed by a journalist, a Herr Steinmann, who stays out of shot (which is fine for me, because as a result he is not confined to the documentary, but can also pop up between the curtains or in the bathroom mirror). During their training Navy SEALs learn how to resist torture. The men explain, for example, how they have trained themselves to lose consciousness before things get really bad, or have found a cave deep in themselves into which they can withdraw and where no one can find them. When he was taken prisoner, one of them developed multiple personalities, which together could endure tortures that would have been too much for one person. That had consequences later when not all those personalities turned out to be equally suited to carry a pistol in their pocket, but in itself, it was effective against torture.

The volume increases again, the beeping becomes sharp and malevolent (robot birds have taken over the world! Resistance is pointless! Dissidents will be kicked out of the nest!) and then Mum turns her alarm off. I stay still for a moment before I kick off my duvet off me, rub the sleep out of my eyes and sit up. I go over and stand in front of the mirror for the daily inspection. The by now acute lack of beard growth has not resolved itself overnight. My arms are just as thin as yesterday, my hips are still as hungry. I draw circles with my chest so that my ribs move to and fro under my skin, and look to see whether I can see the outlines of my thing through my underpants. My boxers seem to fit less tightly than those of the other boys. I see that when we get changed for gym, although I don’t look. But perhaps their underpants are just less old, and the elastic less worn.

Koen Caris, Stenen eten, Atlas Contact, Amsterdam, 2021, 254 pages

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