“Craving,” a recently translated novel by Dutch novelist Esther Gerritsen, is the story of Elizabeth and her adult daughter, Coco, two women who were never particularly close – existing more like ornery cats that begrudgingly tolerated one another. Still, when Elizabeth confesses she’s dying of cancer, Coco moves back home to care for her, a dedication that “collapses and tumbles” when Elizabeth learns Coco actually had nowhere else to live. Together now for the first time in years, the women navigate their complicated history and Elizabeth’s failing health with graceful dark humor and candor. Funny, transparent and complicated, “Craving” is a refreshingly honest portrayal of what can happen when a dysfunctional family faces sudden death. Humans are not always kind, not always rational, Gerritsen seems to say. So why not tell it like it is?
In addition to Elizabeth and her daughter, there’s some fine ensemble work here: Elizabeth’s ex-husband and Coco’s father, Wilbert, a recovering alcoholic whom Elizabeth affectionately calls “my dog;” Wilbert’s wife, Miriam, who raised Coco with Wilbert; Coco’s casual older boyfriend, who may or may not be sticking around; and Elizabeth’s boss, who take her peculiarities in stride.
The craving for understanding takes center stage in the novel, but Gerritsen takes on other desires, too: the need for acceptance, for love, for sex, for distraction, for time and space to mess things up a bit. And while the characters may not always be their best selves (Elizabeth is prone to cold outbursts, Coco to casual hookups) Gerritsen frames each surprising turn against the larger background of grief, so while readers may not perceive each spin with sympathy, all can read them through a lens of understanding.
An extraordinary, haunting book, “Craving” is a short novel with staying power.