Book review: Femke, by David Cameron

This Amsterdam-set coming-of-age story is quirky, unusual, intelligent and elegant, writes Allan Massie

Femke comes in an unattractive format, more suited to a textbook than a novel. Don’t be deterred by its appearance, however. This quirky, unusual novel is intelligent, elegant and well worth reading. Cameron is better known as a poet, though his first short story collection was praised by Robert Nye, whom Scotsman readers of a certain age will remember as the paper’s excellent lead reviewer for a good many years. Robert always had a keen eye for the well-written book which was a bit out of the ordinary.

The setting is Amsterdam, where Cameron lived for some years a while back. The narrator is the Femke of the title, a girl now on the loose with her dog Bibi as companion. Her father is dead and her mother who used, she says, to be a witch (but only the sort of witch some girls say their mother is) now cuts people’s hair. Femke has lived in a squat and been involved with drugs, but she has a good, sharp but cheerful voice, and is good company for the reader. She also has fits or falls into trances, but fewer, you’ll be pleased to know, as the book goes on.

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She is taken up for a time by a good-looking young English filmmaker and his wife, an unattractive couple. Initially it is not quite clear what they want from the girl, but when she finds out she cuts loose.

David Cameron PIC: Elaine HillDavid Cameron PIC: Elaine Hill
David Cameron PIC: Elaine Hill

The second half of the novel is where the book really takes off and becomes truly interesting. Femke has pulled herself together, found herself a room and some work; only a cleaning job at first – there’s less savoury work, too – and is falling into trances less often. Then, one night in the park with Bobi, she falls into conversation with an old man sitting on a bench. It is a good conversation and he is an interesting old man. So a bond quickly develops, and the plot takes off.

It turns out he is distinguished as well as interesting, a famous poet indeed, though one who no longer makes poetry. His silence is, she discovers, linked to the last poems he published, about a lover called Madeleine. None of his friends know who she was; nor does the woman who is credited with translating his last poems from Dutch to English. But there is some mystery to this too; no one has ever read the Dutch originals, which may indeed never have existed. (The poems themselves are published here as a tail-piece to the story.) The poet, Michiel, is convincing, rare in fictional poets. He is perhaps a bit of a rogue; his rich brother certainly thinks so. He has heart trouble, literal and metaphorical, and drinks Talisker because, he says, it was Robert Louis Stevenson’s favourite whisky. The plot speeds up in what may seem too condensed a time-scale, but it does so very pleasingly.

There is an agreeable economy to the writing. In today’s cultural atmosphere, it is perhaps bold of Cameron to have chosen speak through Femke’s voice. To my mind he brings the impersonation off very well, but I guess some will be offended in these censorious times. Femke is an engaging character; one is happy to listen to her and spend time in her company. It’s possible that some will find the first part of the novel either confusing or too erratic. I would urge them to persevere. Not only is the second half more coherent and simply more pleasing, it develops a traditional theme. You realize that, like Jane Austen or Colette in her Claudine novels, Cameron is telling the story of a young girl’s coming of age and moral education. This is done with an economy and authority rare today. It is also a novel which invites a second reading, not always or indeed often the case.

Femke, by David Cameron, Taproot Press, 211pp, £14.95