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Family Business follows the fortunes of the Meijers, a family living in Holland in the years leading up to and during World War II, and as such, takes us into a world rarely covered by historical fiction novels. In the midst of more familiar stories about the French resistance, or English fighter pilots, the fate of lesser known countries and families is often overlooked, which is a great shame. Ms deGroot remedies this by bringing this time and place vividly to life, through the eyes of Andre and Johan Meijer, and their mother Agatha, the matriarch of the family.
Opening when the brothers are teenagers, we follow their simple daily routines of school, soccer - and a first girlfriend. Almost immediately, we are introduced to the dark and prevailing will of Agatha, who rules the small family and its precious business with an iron fist. Dominating the narrative throughout the novel, Agatha is the protagonist to all good hopes and dreams. Although one has a reluctant admiration for her strength of character, her grim determination to let no outside influence deter the course she has charted for her boys sets up a series of shattered dreams for the young men. When, finally, through the catalyst of their girlfriends and wives they challenge Agatha’s grasp, she is unable to find pride in their independence, and quickly moves to sever their happiness.
The narrative is fluid, with clear dialogue and a mounting tension facing the inevitability of the German invasion. By the time war does come, we are seriously vested in the lives of Andre and Johan and their wives and families. The inevitable heroism and tragedy of war is no less harrowing because of its predictability, and Ms deGroot handles our emotions tenderly and still offers hope for the future.
Reading the afterword, I wonder if Family Business is based on circumstances within Ms deGroot’s family, or on events told first hand by survivors of the war and their children, which makes the story even more fascinating. Although at times the characters are a little black and white (I would have loved to have known more about Agatha, and the events in her life that turned her into such an unlikeable creature), I found the descriptions of their lives compelling, and obviously very well researched. The book is a little slow to start, but the pace picks up, and soon we are facing triumph and adversity side by side with the Meijar family.
A very well-written character-driven historical fiction novel, and one that I am really glad I read. I cheered, I cried, and I felt I became part of the Meijar family, and was reluctant to put the book down at its ending. I hope Ms deGroot may write a sequel, for surely the period of post-war challenges holds many opportunities for more of her compelling family stories.
© Elizabeth St John
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