A map of the Dutch province of Zeeland, in the south on the Belgian border, at the beginning of Elisabeth Holdsworth’s Those who come after (Picador, ISBN 978-1-4050-4050-1) alerts readers that this is a book with a rich history. Zeeland may be a backwater these days, but once it was the place from which the Royal Dutch East India Company sailed. These ships were the first from Europe to sight New Zealand and Van Dieman’s land, or Tasmania, these names all relics of that Dutch entrepreneurship.
Elisabeth Holdsworth is well aware of the history of Zeeland. She spent her early life there before migrating with her parents to Australia in 1959. I came to Australia with my parents from New Zealand in 1964. My family settled for a time sufficient for me to complete my secondary education in Goulburn, the inland city where Elisabeth now lives. Goulburn is another setting for her book, so even before I read it I had some connections with it.
Those who come after is a well crafted novel. The central character Juliana Stollburg is descended from the Dutch aristocracy of Middelburg, the chief city of Walcheren in Zeeland. She came to Australia as a child with her parents. Her father, a member of the Dutch resistance during World war II, runs a Dutch trading company, but, like many men who survived that conflict, he has problems. He drinks too much and eventually dies of a heart attack leaving an independent Juliana to fend fer herself and her mother. The mother is highly strung and never at home in Australia. Adolescent Juliana has to take care of her. She finds some help from Philly, the young psychiatric registrar who lives a few doors away. She has a close relationship with him, though well aware he is gay.
When Juliana finishes school, though she’s won two university places, she sits a public service exam and finds herself working for some clandestine part of the army. Her boss is the ultra-masculine Brigadier Michael Munro, who takes a shine for Philly. Their relationship must, of course, be hidden from all eyes except Juliana’s. The relationship is a torment for Philly, who wants to settle down with a good man, but years for Michael. Philly eventually kills himself. Juliana crashes a car and as a result her mother dies. Michael is shot in Vietnam; Juliana kills him with her father’s gun.
Later, much later, now married to Oscar, Juliana discovers her husband is having an affair with Frederick Munro, Michael’s younger brother. All these events fold in on her, but she stands steadfast. To the end she remains a stubborn Dutch aristocrat.
Told like this, the story seems trite, and I did find the gay connections at times a little far-fetched. But Juliana reacts to her husband’s faithlessness not with anger but with resignation. Her character grows with each misfortune. Stoic, certainly, but very much Dutch as well, and ultimately very Australian.Holdsworth tells a rich, rewarding story. If only this were true of more debut novels.