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This spellbinding and intimate novel explores the burden of legacy as a young woman wrestles with discoveries that contradict her great-uncle’s supposed heroism during World War II.
D says that a name always fits in the end, that a name is like a leather shoe that forms itself to the foot.
But in my mind, it’s the other way around: a person grows into his name.
Marjolijn van Heemstra has heard about her great-uncle’s heroism for as long as she can remember. As a resistance fighter, he was the mastermind of a bombing operation that killed a Dutch man who collaborated with the Nazis, and later became a hero to everyone in the family.
So, when Marjolijn’s grandmother bestows her with her great-uncle’s signet ring requesting that she name her future son after him, Marjolijn can’t say no. Now pregnant with her firstborn, she embarks on a quest to uncover the true story behind the myth of her late relative. Chasing leads from friends and family, and doing her own local research, Marolijn realizes that the audacious story she always heard is not as clear-cut as it was made out to be. As her belly grows, her doubts grow, too—was her uncle a hero or a criminal?
Vivid, hypnotic, and profoundly moving, In Search of a Name explores war and its aftermath and how the stories we tell and the stories we are told always seem to exist somewhere between truth and fiction.
Van Heemstra's perceptive if tepid English-language debut confronts the transformation of family myth and the hazards of historical memory. When writer and narrator Marjolijn van Heemstra was 18, she was bequeathed a ring that once belonged to her late distant uncle Bommenneef, upheld by her family as a hero of the Dutch resistance during WWII. Fifteen years later, a pregnant Marjolijn, who had promised to name her first-born son after her uncle, sets out to better understand the man who was to be "the blueprint for my son." As her quest for more information leads her to the national archives and reconnections with far-flung relatives, Marjolijn begins to realize Bommenneef might not have been as heroic as her family insists. In a plot punctuated by the travails of a complicated pregnancy, Marjolijn's investigation touches critical questions about the past and its relation to the present. How do the stories one tells come to supplant the truth? Is it better to preserve an idealized family history than mess it up with facts? Unfortunately, the monotonous and observational narrative, mired in mundane particulars, fails to provide insight on these deeper mysteries. Readers expecting an immersive family drama will be disappointed.