Many people will remember Bart Van Es’ nonfiction memoir The Cut Out Girl winning the Best Book of the Year at the Costa Book Awards back in 2018. Slightly shamefully, I have only now just got around to it. Van Es looks back at his family history; particularly during the Second World War when his grandparents would hide Jewish children. One girl, Lien, came to live with them and regard them as her family. Yet years after the war, something happened that made Lien and the Van Es family cease contact. Now, Lien’s story is told in full about what happened during and after the war.
The structure of this book was cleverly done and really added to the reading experience. The chapters flit between present day in 2017 and the 1940s. This gives the reader a glimpse into Lien’s life growing up in wartime Netherlands, but also lets us learn more about Bart, his motives in writing this book, and his research. He doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics; indeed, I found his self-reflection brutally honest at points. It made him an endearing figure along with Lien. Her narrative provided a personal touch, her narrative focussing on her experiences whilst Van Es provided the larger context on what was happening.
With memoirs or biographies such as this, especially with the author a relative of the people he is writing about, there might be a tendency to be biased, or present a rosier picture than was real. But Van Es was completely fair to everyone mentioned in the book, and he helps you understand the motivations behind their actions. Whilst I did not agree with everything that Lien or the Van Es family did, it was understandable and I was sympathetic to their plight. It made the later scenes all the more heart-breaking: you can see where both parties are coming from but because they can’t communicate their feelings, they struggle to understand one another. I came away from The Cut Out Girl viewing them as flawed people.
Van Es’ descriptions were beautifully written, and made me long to visit the Netherlands to witness the scenes for myself. His writing was really evocative and helped me picture what was happening. He also handles sensitive subjects with a delicacy and sensitivity. He is obviously diving into a distressing subject matter; discussions of war as well as sexual abuse and suicide are mentioned, which might upset some readers so caution is advised. Yet these topics are never sensationalized and treated with the seriousness they deserve.
2019 was an excellent year for me in terms of non-fiction, and with The Cut Out Girl it looks like 2020 will be the same. This is such a well-crafted, expertly written book that I will be pushing into the hands of my family and friends. Despite the grim subject matter – and there were plenty of moments that made me well up – The Cut Out Girl is ultimately an uplifting story about the power of family. Highly recommended.
The Cut Out Girl is published by Penguin Random House and you can find more information here.