Simon Van Der Heym,
In Search of a Brilliant White Cloud
(Ivy House, 2005)

In Simon Van Der Heym's In Search of a Brilliant White Cloud, the author gives us the fictional biography of Eric, starting when Eric was a young boy, experiencing the Nazi invasion and occupation of the Netherlands, and taking us through Eric's peregrination to North America, his business career, his personal life and his coming face-to-face with a life-threatening illness.

In the first part of the book, Van Der Heym describes Eric's fairly ordinary life in the Netherlands, which is turned upside-down when Nazis invade and occupy the country. At first, it does not look like there will be a lot of impact on ordinary citizens in their everyday lives. However, the oppression slowly but inexorably mounts as rationing sets in and then bigotry-based laws, aimed at denigrating and persecuting the Jews, grow in scope, severity and harshness. Eric's parents must eventually help the family escape from this oppression by fleeing the Netherlands.

Their subsequent moves from country to country, trying to stay one step ahead of the Gestapo and often finding unexpected allies along the way, make for a very interesting reading experience.

At this point, I was looking forward to the story of how the traumatic early years and the family's harrowing flight from the Nazis would resonate through the rest of Eric's life and the lives of his parents and siblings. That is not what I found. In a somewhat jarring transition, Eric is suddenly an adult, married, has children and is living in Canada. Instead of maturing and growing as a person, it seems like Eric's childhood flaws have grown, without his positive traits keeping pace. As a protagonist, I found him no longer likeable or sympathetic. And, unfortunately, the story also lost most of its drama and interesting detail. Instead, we learn about Eric's difficulties relating to others, his adventures and misadventures as he becomes involved in sailing, his business ventures and his repeated mistakes involving his lovelife, his relationship with his son and his efforts to find a reliable general manager for his company. For many pages, it is as if Eric's parents and two brothers, who were an important part of the early story, simply vanished.

Toward the end, as Eric moves into retirement and faces a health crisis, the story again becomes more interesting. This is also where we finally discover the meaning of the book's title. It is also where Eric finally finds some level of maturity and becomes a more interesting and sympathy-worthy protagonist. It is also here where the reader finally finds out what has been happening with Eric's parents and siblings, as those characters are reintroduced into the story.

On a technical level, this story is descriptive and well-written and the editing is good.

But the book has two significant flaws. One involves the flow of the story. There are occasional, significant discontinuities in the tale. The first, and biggest, is the abrupt transition from Eric's childhood and adolescence in Nazi-occupied Europe to Eric's later years living with his wife and children in North America. There are other jumps, too, that are not quite as big or as jarring, but they prevent the story from flowing smoothly. While not all stories have to be linear, it takes good transitional devices and masterful writing skill to pull off non-linear jumps without losing the reader's interest. That high level of experienced writing skill is not present in this debut novel.

The second flaw is a bigger one. While I do not have to like a protagonist in order to like a book, it certainly helps, and the protagonist has to be someone with whom I can, to some extent, identify, and for whom I can have some sympathy. For most of In Search of a Brilliant White Cloud, Eric is not someone I would want as a friend or acquaintance. He makes the same mistakes over and over again, and I found his inability to learn from experience frustrating. I also saw him as arrogant and egocentric most of the time. In the early pages, when Eric's childhood was described, I did not always like him, but I did feel sympathy for his situation. That sympathy did not resurface until late in the book, with the "brilliant white cloud" experience -- but by then I'd stopped caring.

I am capable of enjoying a book with an unsympathetic protagonist. Stephen R. Donaldson created one of the least sympathetic protagonists in all of fiction, in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Covenant does despicable things, and his anger and apathy cause considerable collateral damage. But I read all six books of the Chronicles and never stopped rooting for Covenant, and waiting and hoping for his redemption. That was because he was part of a fascinating story and, despite his many flaws, I could understand Covenant, even when I despised his actions. I never cared for Van Der Heym's protagonist enough to root for him or despise him. Once Eric escaped Nazi occupation, he simply became uninteresting.

This could have been a very good book. Van Der Heym has all the basic skills of a good writer, but I think he lost his way. In Search of a Brilliant White Cloud has a good beginning and a good ending. A book needs a middle, though, and this one is weak.

review by
Chris McCallister

19 July 2008

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