Cover Image: Tench


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This is an uncomfortable, disturbing read but compelling at the same time.

Jonathan, a thirty-year-old man, is released from prison after being acquitted on appeal due to insufficient forensic evidence and inconsistencies in the victim’s story.  The offence with which he was charged is not directly named but it soon becomes clear that it was of a sexual nature and involved a girl with developmental challenges.  Jonathan returns to live with his mother in their soon-to-be demolished house in a rundown neighbourhood.  Determined to control his urges, he adopts a strict daily routine.  All is well until nine-year-old Elke befriends him and the two bond over caring for an injured tench, a fish which Jonathan keeps in his aquarium.  

The protagonist is a lonely man who seems to have no friends.  He interacts only with his mother and Elke; though he has a job, “he kept aloof from everyone, like always.  According to the psychologist, secluding himself was a ‘survival mechanism’.”  He desperately wants to be a good person; when he returns home, he sets a rigid schedule for himself because he understands that controlling his environment and activities helps him control his behaviour, and he diligently does the exercises in his therapy workbook and tries to implement what he learned from his prison psychologist.  He considers one of his strengths to be “looking after other people . . . he’d considered this one of his best qualities.  Caring for others.”  He certainly tries to look after his mother and feels guilty that he was responsible for her being alone during his imprisonment.  So when a lonely young girl, who has no playmates in the largely deserted neighbourhood and whose parents are mostly absent, appears in his life, he feels he needs to take care of her. 

To complicate the situation, Jonathan has no one to help him.  His mother never discusses his offense with him; her approach seems to be to forget about it.  Though she sees Elke in the house, she seems to think that by pretending nothing is happening, nothing will really happen.  Jonathan knows that his mother doesn’t understand him; he finds some Bible verses she’d copied out:  “Something about life being beyond your understanding and having to submit to the wisdom of God, and never being able to know another person completely.  .  . . that bit about others being unknowable had stayed with him.  Somehow he knew it was about him and it hurt.”  His mother’s only attempt to help him is to suggest he go to Bible study.  He lies about having attending a Bible meeting but “He didn’t need to turn around to see the expression on her face, to know that she knew he was lying.  But also that she wouldn’t say anything about it.”

Once he is released from prison, Jonathan also loses the help of his psychologist; his acquittal “cancelled out everything:  the prison sentence, the therapy, the psychiatric hospital.”  If he had remained in prison, he would have been placed “under a hospital order” which “could last a long time . . .  and the treatment could be extended every year, theoretically forever, until the psychiatrists and psychologists at the hospital judged him to be cured.”  In prison, Jonathan had received only “pre-therapy, as they called it.  Or ‘individual offender therapy’ therapy that started in prison and was meant to prepare him for treatment in the hospital.”  Though the prison psychologist estimates “a high likelihood of a repeat offence with crimes like [Jonathan’s],” all he has to help him are exercises from his pre-therapy workbook.  He admits, “As horrible as that hospital order had seemed, he would have liked to have carried on longer with the pre-therapy with the prison psychologist.  But that was all cancelled once he was acquitted.  Now he could only sign up voluntarily.  There was a centre in the city.  The psychologist had given him the telephone number, but he knew it was a step he would never dare take.”

Symbolism is used very effectively.  The injured tench symbolizes Jonathan.  He believes that “with good care he’d make it healthy again” just as he believes that by doing his therapy exercises he too will be well again.  Just as he has a daily schedule for his activities, he develops a daily schedule for taking care of the tench:  feeding times, water temperature checks, etc.  When he describes the fish, Jonathan could be describing himself:  “’it’s a shy, gentle fish. . . . It likes peace and quiet.  If there’s too much noise or if other animals get too close, it hides in the mud.  It gets scared easily.’”  Jonathan emphasizes that the fish needs cold water because hot water is dangerous for its health.  During the entire duration of the novel, there is a heat wave; there are at least two dozen references to it being unrelentingly, oppressively hot.  The fish has more and more difficulty coping with its environment and takes to hiding in the mud and Jonathan starts feel overwhelmed and finds it more and more difficult to control his thoughts when Elke increasingly imposes herself on his environment.  A description of the fish “floating on its back on the surface, pale belly up as if praying for help from on high, help that would never come” is ominous because Jonathan believes “his fate was linked to the fish.”

Reading Tench is like watching a film in which two trains on the same track are heading towards each other.  We are horrified and fascinated at the same time.  We hope that something can be done to divert the trains and prevent a collision, but a wreck seems inevitable.  Throughout the novel, as we see the direction of Jonathan’s thoughts, there is a growing sense of tension, but it becomes impossible to turn away. 

The author, a Dutch criminal psychologist, manages to create a protagonist whose behaviour will repulse readers but for whom they will also have some compassion.  Schilperoord implies that society bears some responsibility in not insuring that Jonathan receives the help he needs.  The book is not lengthy but it is unsettling.  Because it is so thought-provoking, it will remain with me for some time.  

Note:  I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.
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Why do people commit crimes? Most mystery novels tell us that the most common motives are money, revenge, or strong emotion. But then there are people like Jonathan, the protagonist of Inge Schilperoord’s Tench (translated by David Colmer), who are probably doomed to be criminals. It’s just a matter of time. This disturbing novel is one of the most troubling books I’ve ever read because it takes us inside the head of a man who has the potential to commit the most abhorrent of all crimes.

We meet Jonathan on the day he gets out of prison. We’re not sure what he’s in prison for. In fact, he is released because there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him. All we know is that he is required to see the prison psychologist once a week and work his way through a book of exercises to deal with anger and stress. Jonathan has been methodically working to recognize his stressors and control his impulses. He is determined to do better when he gets out. He’s planned it all out; he just needs to stick with it.

Unfortunately, Jonathan’s little workbook and short time with the psychiatrist are weak tools considering what he is up against. Tench follows Jonathan in the weeks after his release as his plans start to fall apart. The impulses he is fighting against are deeply rooted in his psyche. Once he starts to rationalize, it’s all over. And yet, I still had a little bit of hope for him that things might turn out differently this time.

Tench is a hard book to get through because of the nature of Jonathan’s struggle.  I was tempted into requesting this book because I thought it would be interesting to take a look inside the head of a criminal. I’ve always been interested in motives. But I wish I hadn’t looked under this particular rock. This book is very well written, but the problem is that Jonathan’s thoughts are so taboo that I wanted to stop reading. I’m not sure I can recommend it to very many people. Perhaps I could suggest it to a criminal psychology student who also likes fiction.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 13 February 2018.
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After months in jail, Jonathan has been granted a provisional release due to inconsistent victim statements and insufficient forensic evidence. He is travelling back to his village, back to his dependent, asthmatic mother. He has his therapy workbook and exercise book in hand. The assignments are meant to teach that actions can be transgressive. If behavior is controlled, a person's goodness will prevail.

Jonathan is uncomfortable with disorder. A daily structured schedule includes work at a fish gutting factory, walking his "senior" dog Milk and cooking for his mother. He loves the peace and quiet of the sand dunes and nearby ponds. Having always found his aquarium relaxing, he rescues an injured tench, a carp-like fish, and brings it home from the pond with the intention of nursing it back to health.

During Jonathan's jail stint, a waif-like child named Elke has been walking and grooming Milk. The child refuses to relinquish this job. As an animal lover, she insists upon helping care for the tench. Jonathan's coping mechanisms and fixations will now be tested. He knows he should walk away, refuse Elke's help.

"Tench" by Inge Schilperoord is a disturbing, eye-opening read. Although the beginning of the tome captured my interest, I felt the story stagnated, proceeding to reach depths I found to be uncomfortable. The content will be unsettling for many readers.

Thank you Pushkin Press and Net Galley for the opportunity to read and review "Tench".
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Wow... ok I don't like to post negative reviews about books (well no one does)... but this was just awful.

There unfortunately is nothing about this book that I enjoyed. I'm not sure what I was thinking that this book was going be about but just not for me period. 

I'm wondering where the author was trying to take this book? Clearly, Jonathan is battling his own demons with trying to understand his sexual desires for little girls? No... definitely not for me. I was pretty disgusted the entire novel.

Thank you to Negalley for an advanced arc in exchange for an honest review.
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How do you become the person you want to be? This is the challenge that faces thirty-year-old Jonathan when he is released from prison, acquitted on the basis of insufficient evidence. He returns to his elderly mother and their isolated house on the edge of the dunes, one of only two houses left standing in the midst of demolition. Soon the council will rehouse them on a new estate, but Jonathan isn’t looking forward to it. Change upsets him. And so he tries to settle back into his old life: long walks on the dunes with the dog; watching TV with his mother; fishing in the ponds. He wants to be good. But, as summer thickens over their dead-end town and the mercury rises, Jonathan finds his calm unsettled by the bright, creative, clever little girl next door. Sometimes instinct can undermine even the best laid plans.

Bold, brave and unsettling, this can’t have been an easy book to pitch and it makes for uncomfortable but compelling reading. There isn’t the slightest element of sensation. On the contrary, for most of the book virtually nothing happens: it is a character study, a series of almost cinematic vignettes of bleak, abandoned houses; gulls screeching above deserted sands; grey waters and distant container ships; sweat beading on a face. This is the kind of place where dreams go to die. Schilperoord’s writing (translated by David Colmer) has a stark, unemotional elegance that suits this enervating loneliness. She draws us into Jonathan’s mind, inviting us to see the world as he sees it, making us party to his struggles. As a criminal psychologist by trade, she must spend her life trying to make the same kind of imaginative leaps: to find a way, through a spark of common understanding, to help people like Jonathan who dream of finding an easier way to exist in the world.

The tench of the title is a fine, large specimen that Jonathan discovers in his favourite freshwater pond on the dunes. Spotting that it is injured, he takes it home to his aquarium and prepares to nurse it back to health. He’s good at caring for things. He wants to help, to make things better. And, although he’s initially suspicious of little Elke from the house next door, he begins to wonder whether he couldn’t help her as well. The book deals in grey areas of morality, blurred boundaries and good intentions gone wrong. It thrums with tension, not necessarily because of what happens, but because of what could happen. And, all the time, the tench is there: a creature of darkness, swimming low at the bottom of the pond, rarely seen but always present, waiting to be lured up to the surface.

Schilperoord’s book has something of the Greek tragedy about it: the man full of hubris, brought down by a fatal flaw. Yet it is also compassionate, without ever making excuses for its protagonist. In a world of increasingly sensationalist thrillers, it makes its impact in a much more subtle and powerful way: by inviting us to put aside the notion of clear-cut right and wrong, and to seek to understand, rather than condemn. Austere, powerful and thought-provoking, it is a book that deserves to be read and one that lingers with you, simmering, for many hours afterwards.

Please see my review at the following link:
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We first meet Jonathan on the day he is being released from prison, but don't learn the reason for his being there until the story unspools, mostly in his head.  Jonathan is damaged, but the extent and nature of these damages is only revealed slowly as he returns to the deserted, mostly demolished housing estate where he has lived with his mother.   The extent of her pathologies are also revealed in telling ways, and as Jonathan attempts to set himself and the house in order, he is thwarted by the appearance of a third person who threatens to derail all his efforts to change.  A tench is a freshwater fish, also called a doctor fish, and Jonathan's rescue of a damaged tench attempts to revive it become symbolic of his aims in rehabilitation.  Dark and disturbing, but very well written with a fine sense of place and atmosphere.

Thanks to netgalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Extremely well written. Very dark subject matter, but an amazing job by the author vividly penning her protagonists battle with his demons.
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