by Tineke Van der Eecken
Wild Weeds Press
Reviewed by SAMANTHA TRAYHURN
Traverse by Tineke Van Der Eecken is a novel about the micro-offences that culminate in the end of a marriage. Physical distance and emotional distance. Wandering minds, snide remarks, broken trust. Part travel memoir, part personal reflection, it shows how a relationship doesn’t dissipate with a single wrong doing, but is slowly eroded by tides of actions that break a person down. At the core of the memoir, a wife (Van der Eecken) recounts a 5-week traverse through rugged Madagascan terrain – the territory of her husband’s affair with a work colleague – as she accompanies him on a field trip in an attempt to save their marriage. The premise alone is enough to pique interest. Some readers will identify this as an act of bravery, and others complete reckless abandon. Who would want to sleep in the same villages, swim in the same rivers, and eat the same meals, as their husband and his lover? This isn’t a typical divorce narrative, but we soon learn that there isn’t much that is typical about the relationship we observe.
Tineke and Dirk are a Belgian couple who spent their courtship and early married life in Africa, before moving to Australia and then England, following Dirk’s work as a geologist. At the time that the narrative takes place they have two children, and have just uprooted a life they had grown to love in Australia, to settle in Cotgrave, a small English village. As part of his new role, Dirk takes frequent field trips to Madagascar where he meets and falls in love with logistical manager, Fara. Tina is left to try and assemble a new life in Cotgrave, while sensing that her husband is drifting away from her.
We had met in Africa and we had married in Africa… We had our children in Africa. Was I now becoming associated with middle-class English life for him? I had no part in the choice of our home base, but it became clear that he was looking at me across a distance… (39).
After each trip Dirk returns more and more enamoured with Madagascar, and Tina soon learns that it isn’t just the place, but also another woman, that has won his affections.
Early on in the Prelude we learn that this story is being recounted six years after the fact, and is a collection of memories filtered through anger and a sense of betrayal, but most of all a desire to comprehend just what went wrong. “I must do this – must record to understand,’ (12) Van der Eeken states as she sits down to write her memoir.
With this proclamation readers quickly understand that this isn’t a travel story simply penned for entertainment and a love for far off lands. If anything, to Van der Eecken, Madagascar evokes at best discomfort, and at worst disdain. The country becomes entangled with her bitterness so much so that it becomes a third accomplice in the affair. It is after the first part of the book (Tremors) when Dirk’s unfaithfulness is revealed, that Tina decides she must overcome her negative feelings towards the place, and embark on his final trek with him, if the marriage has any hope of survival, “We would not be able to continue together unless we resolved what separated us most. I needed to go to Madagascar with him.” (71).
From the converted railway carriage where the author writes, it is as though even after an extended period of time, the act of writing is a salve for a deeply personal wound that can only be truly healed by retracing.
At times while reading, I felt weighed down by the repetition and self-pity of the narration– it is difficult to endure the circulatory thinking of a scorned partner, perhaps because it recalls repressed feelings, or makes us think about how we would behave in the same situation. That being said I found myself drawn in: I wanted to know just what the author was capable of enduring, and how she was able “to traverse and emerge on the other side” (9). Van der Eecken’s writing is at its strongest when she is truly present and offers her observations of the landscapes and cultures she experiences: “The roads built by the French reminded me of other rural roads in Africa. Once the industrious (and mineral greedy) colonial administrations had left, the roads had gradually deteriorated and made it impossible for motorised transport to pass. Now they looked like honeycomb.” (121). “In the last few years vanilla has increased from 30 to 190 euro per kilo” (133). “There were no independence monuments, no little shops, no signs of any contact with the outside world.” (151). These interesting facts and tidbits not only provide a counterpoint to Van der Eecken’s internal conflict, but also give an insight into who this woman is when she isn’t pining for her husband. She is worldly, compassionate, astute, creative, strong. It is a stark reminder of what jealousy and fear of rejection can stir in a person.
Many readers will find it hard to like Dirk, let alone understand the author’s desire to remain married to him. He is presented as belittling and mean; self-absorbed and cold. When Van der Eecken expresses that she misses her career, he responds off-handedly, “what career? You never had one” (56). When she talks about the book that she has been working on for a number of years while juggling family life, he snidely comments, “you’ll never finish that book… You better look for a real job” (29). When she is seized with fear and can’t cross a makeshift bridge during the trek, he scurries past her and utters over his shoulder “crawl if you have to” (162), never offering a hand. Of course, we are receiving one-sided memory, but the cracks in the relationship seem clear early on. Perhaps this callousness is Dirk’s way of distancing himself so he can pursue the love that he feels for Fara. So, when Van der Eecken documents moments of affection or making love, I was always surprised and a little bit disappointed. I suppose I wanted her to deny him, but I was reminded of how when anger and love mingle, things are only ever further complicated by these fleeting moments of romance.
One of the biggest questions that Traverse raised for me is, how much is a sense of place tied to a sense of self? Here, a woman who has been following her husband and his career all over the world senses that she has lost something along the way. In the final section of the book (Postlude: A sense of home) when Van der Eecken thinks back to sitting outside the renovated railway carriage in Australia with her friend Ros, she realises that by identifying a sense of belonging, she feels at ease: “I felt like a river that, after a long drought, had returned to its riverbed” (211). In this section Van der Eecken goes on to hint at the true motive for penning her story: overcoming an acceptance of betrayal that began with her father and followed her all her adult relationships.
I had lost all trust in my father, and by extension, in men. When the man I loved back then betrayed me in a similar way, it was the beginning of false starts in my own relationships, the compulsion to follow my parents’ patterns (211).
While not a perfect piece of literature, Traverse is a real account of the complexities of relationships, and is a rewarding reading experience that demonstrates how one can marry physical adversity with emotional adversity to gain the strength to go on.
SAMANTHA TRAYHURN is a writer living on the Central Coast of NSW. Her work has appeared in Westerly, Overland, LiNQ Journal, eTropic, and others. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Western Sydney University. She is also the editor of Pink Cover Zine.