Feeling a little rusty at the old reviewing, and having a pile of nineteen books I have read and not yet reviewed, I wasn’t sure where to start. Then the realisation that it was father’s day answered my quandary instantly as Peter Buwalda’s debut, and recently translated to English, novel Bonita Avenue is an epic tale of one family centring around the father figure at its head, Siem Sigerius. Decision made I realised I had set myself quite the book to get my reviewing fingers limbered up with as Bonita Avenue is one of those books that is so crammed with themes, insights and questions that I would say it is a book almost impossible to wholly cover, I will try however.
From the outside Siem Sigerius looks to have it all. He is a renowned genius, he is happily married with two wonderful and successful daughters, a brilliant career and is so well liked that when (very near the start of the book) he is photographed naked people seem to respect him even more for being ‘a real person’. Yet as we all know, and in the case of Bonita Avenue soon discover, there is always much more going on than might meet the eye. Yes, as we read on we discover the affair from which his marriage was born, what Siem is spending his nights doing on the internet and also why he keeps his own son a secret, if you are worried that I have spoiled anything there are plenty more secrets left to discover.
If you are thinking ‘oh another family saga’ I can assure you, as someone who has read a few, that Buwalda has written something quite different here. Admittedly as you start to read Bonita Avenue and Aaron Bever describes how he meets his girlfriend Joni’s parents, her father or step-father of course being Siem, you could think this is your average family fare. Soon, in fact just a few pages later, we find ourselves several years down the line as Aaron sits on a train and discovers Joni’s mother is sitting opposite him and looking at him with the contempt he feels he deserves. Everything has changed but how and why? These are the questions Buwalda starts off making the reader ponder with a sense of mystery before asking them all about their own thoughts on adultery, mental illness, porn, the sex industry, death and murder.
If that wasn’t enough, and the book is 530+ pages so there is plenty of time for all these themes and ponderings, Buwalda does something that I thought was rather genius. He sets Bonita Avenue in the very real town of Enschede and around the time that the horrific Vuuwerkramp, or fireworks disaster, occurred when a firework factory caught light and exploded killing 23 people, injuring 947 and destroying over 400 buildings. As this huge disaster goes on Bulwalda has it playing in the background, very effectively, yet keeps the focus on the miniature disasters going on in the foreground of this family. It is a very brave and clever move and one that Buwalda executes beautifully juxtaposing the two.
For two days he’s been wandering aimlessly and awkwardly through his own house; he’s been caught unawares by the unexpected takeover of his home, Joni’s weeping about her injured friend, that phone call from Wilbert, the sooty smell emitting from the lacerated, smouldering city – everything permeates his farmhouse. Fate has turned it into a country estate from a second-rate Agatha Christie. Crammed together now, of all times.
Now I have to admit Bonita Avenue is not instantly the easiest book to read, but then some of the best books aren’t and need a lot of work. The prose is taught and punchy yet the delivery is more complex. For a start time shifts in a paragraph or a sentence and occasionally you feel slightly confused as you catch up with your narrators stream of conscious thought. Secondly sometimes you aren’t aware who your narrator is or where in the books chronology they are. There are only three narrators; Siem, Aaron and Joni and soon enough you find the rhythm and differences in their voices. However thirdly, they aren’t always that likeable. Aaron clearly has some kind of psychological issues making him unpredictable, obsessional and in his relationship with Jodi a fawning erratic paranoid mess. Joni is also an intriguing if rather icy character. She is ruthless, knows what she wants and will really do pretty much anything to get it, she is also narcissistic yet someone completely in denial. Even Siem himself is a bundle of contradictions, but then aren’t we all. He is highly successful yet incredibly insecure and often self-pitying, he is moralistic and yet a complete hypocrite. All three characters are flawed yet real, unreliable but very readable. Buwalda is now clearly just showing off. Ha!
The vexing vacuum fills itself with self-doubt, it just happens. Isn’t he being overly self-righteous? Sometimes he thinks it downright stupid to equate that internet site with prostitution, it’s just not the same thing; these are the moments he considers himself a narrow-minded old fart, but a minute later the taboo takes his breath away again, he almost wants to scream with misery, and he treats himself and his wife to another phoney email. Then, again: am I being too uptight? Am I not the one who’s a moral and ethical stuck-in-the-mud? A frightened, sexless man?
As I mentioned earlier this is really a book about one man and his efforts to be the best man, father, husband, person that he can be. Through the three characters we see how well, or not as the case may be, he manages this and also how the actions of one person no matter how big or how small can affect those close around them and those on their periphery. For all this, and all the themes and questions that it asks, I think Bonita Avenue is an incredibly original take on the epic family saga and something of a contemporary masterpiece.
If you love a novel where the shiniest of veneers is about to crack and fracture then boy oh boy you will enjoy Bonita Avenue no end. Yes, you need to work at it and it does show a rather ugly side to families and human nature and yet while it illustrates this side of life it also strangely celebrates it too. After all, aren’t we all flawed, don’t we all make mistakes and have secrets we hide? I saw a review that claimed Buwalda as being the Dutch Jonathan Franzen. I can’t comment on that not having read him yet as I read along I kept thinking of Christos Tsiolkas, not because their writing or style is the same but because they beautifully write about the nasty side of people and society and make the grim strangely glorious.
Highly, highly recommended reading and if you can think of any other books in this vein I would love to hear about them. I would also love to know if you have read Bonita Avenue and what you made of it?