This compression of a millennium inside a single sentence — a contemporary writer gazing through his window at a medieval world — introduces us to the novelistic sleight of hand Hertmans is intent on bringing off ... One of the great challenges of writing historical fiction is deploying the research without calling attention to it. Hertmans dismisses this obligation with a bold announcement: Hey, I did research! ... My first inclination was to balk at this authorial intrusion, but Hertmans is so honestly frustrated and miserable in the modern world that I felt sorry for him ... Hertmans habitually treats the reader to his process ... The novel is an astonishingly capacious form; like Whitman, it can contain multitudes ... an imaginative flight ... It is, as it says right there on the cover, nothing less than a novel. And it’s a really good one.
If your idea of a good holiday read is something emotionally unchallenging and mentally untaxing, then on no account pick up this book ... is as demanding of the reader’s imagination as it is of his or her concentration ... Written in an often breathless, continuous present tense, Hamoutal’s experiences are visualised following Hertmans’s own groundbreaking researches ... Written in an often breathless, continuous present tense, Hamoutal’s experiences are visualised following Hertmans’s own groundbreaking researches.
Reading award-winning Flemish author Hertmans’ literary latest is akin to engaging with a passionate conversationalist about his or her research into an engrossing topic ... Hertmans has a unique voice, and his personal connection fosters a singular depth and engagement of author with subject. The novel is a storyteller’s tapestry: Hertmans’ vivid modern travelogue traces what remains of the historical Vigdis, which he skillfully weaves into his fictional imaginings of Vigdis’ life. The horrors of anti-Semitism and the unintended consequences of the First Crusade are pitilessly portrayed, resulting in a story that is tragic and harrowing, yet beautifully told, with an ambience that is fully realized for both the eleventh century and our own.
The story Mr. Hertmans tells is drawn from real historical sources; his book is what is sometimes referred to as a nonfiction novel. Following such writers as W.G. Sebald, Emmanuel Carrère and Patrick Modiano, he splices his own travels and research into the rendering of the past. It is easy to see why this technique attracts writers from Europe, where history is omnipresent ... The limpid translation, from the Dutch, is by David McKay ... The double narrative has a practical purpose, too. Hamoutal’s fortunes are almost unrelievedly heartbreaking, so Mr. Hertmans’s detours into the 'mundane world' of the present, though uninteresting in themselves, offer a reprieve from the piled-up miseries of her life. I confess to being divided in my opinion about this. Part of me thinks it’s something of a cheat, a way to make tragedy more palatable. But part of me is grateful for the consolations of context and hindsight. Leavening the story’s many horrors is the miracle of its preservation. Somehow, nearly a millennium later, Hamoutal has been remembered and honored.
Hamoutal’s story is neatly interwoven with (or constantly interrupted by, according to taste) a careful analysis of the various documents and scholarly articles he consulted and an impressively assiduous attempt to follow in her many footsteps. As Hertmans acknowledges, her link to his own village also makes this an especially heartfelt project ... However, this level of personal investment cuts both ways. There’s no mistaking the book’s passion and epic feel. Yet Hertmans’s determination to provide every detail of Hamoutal’s journeys means that they can feel almost too thoroughly evoked. I have always been in favour of an author using sights, sounds and smells to capture a sense of place — but perhaps not all of them all the time, as Hertmans does. Even at moments of high drama, we’re kept fully informed about what the local flora and fauna are up to, as owls hoot, seagulls screech, or as he simply lists the nearby plants and flowers ... At first, admittedly, this does have the desired effect of keeping it vivid. A few chapters on, it begins to get in the way of the narrative momentum and becomes quite irritating. Happily, in the end, the central story and medieval Europe’s convulsed politics remain powerful enough to triumph over Hertmans’s rather smothering obsession with them. At times, however, it’s a pretty close-run thing.
... commanding ... The vivid descriptions of the era and Hamoutal’s deteriorating mental state mostly excuse Hertmans’s distracting breaks in the fictional narrative with chapters of his own travelogue. The novel will satisfy readers willing to be swept away into a starkly different time.
The book has a quiet intimacy to it, and in his descriptions of landscape and travel, Hertmans’ prose is frequently lovely ... But despite the drama of Hamoutal’s story, there is a static quality to the book, particularly in the sections where Hertmans describes his own travels. It’s an odd contradiction: Hertmans himself moves quickly through the world, but his book doesn’t quite move quickly enough ... Constructed with delicacy, lyricism, and care, Hertmans’ novel still feels occasionally static.