Need some inspiration? Things to think about when it comes to The Book of Everything

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Guus Kuijer. Photo: Stefan Tell

Started a new term and are in need of some inspiration? Have a look at our reading guides and get to know works by the ALMA laureates. They are meant to be used in book circles, in schools or just as inspiration for further reading, and written by members of the ALMA jury.

The Book of Everything is written by the Dutch author Guus Kuijer, who received the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2012. It is about nine year-old Thomas and is set in 1951, in the shadow of the Second World War. The main character was born in the same year as Kuijer himself. Thomas’ father is an authoritarian patriarch who demands absolute obedience from his wife and his children. His son is beaten for putting the tiniest foot wrong and when his wife attempts to defend him, she too is abused. They go to church on Sundays and the Bible is the only book his father will tolerate. After meals he reads aloud from the grim Old Testament story of the plagues of Egypt – which, when he is abusing him, Thomas hopes will be inflicted on his tyrannical father himself.

And so they are, in a sense. Here the book sometimes crosses the line into the fantastical. When the water in Thomas’ aquarium suddenly seems to have been transformed into blood, we understand that Thomas has poured red juice into the water. But when Thomas sees millions of frogs outside the house and then they start coming in through the letterbox, we don’t know what we are supposed to believe. Especially when even Thomas’ neighbour, “the witch” Mrs Van Amersfoort, has seen them too; it even seems to be her who conjured them up.

Mrs Van Amersfoort knows what is going on in Thomas’ home and helps him. She sometimes lets him listen to Beethoven – music he finds so beautiful that he suddenly floats up into the air in his armchair. Mrs Van Amersfoort was in the resistance during the war and hates brutal tyrants. Now she spearheads a women’s revolt against Thomas’ father. She writes a letter which Thomas places in his father’s Bible and when as a result of the letter he once more attempts to abuse his son, Thomas’ sister Margot suddenly puts a knife to his throat. The revolution has begun.

Despite its dark subject, the tone of the book is light and it is full of humour and poetry. Thomas dreams of being happy. The first step towards happiness is not being afraid, says Mrs Van Amersfoort, and this is exactly what Thomas learns as events unfold. The woman next door becomes his role model but he also receives a lot of help from the books she lends him – and which are a sharp contrast to his father’s strict Bible. She also teaches him to love literature which doesn’t mean anything at all, but just makes life worth living.

The perspective is always that of Thomas, who besides the frogs, also sees tropical fish in the canals of Amsterdam. He talks to Jesus from time to time. We also get to read the different thoughts and ideas that Thomas writes down in his diary “The book of everything”. It not only includes his experiences in the home and his love for Eliza, seven years older than him and disabled – he also loves words, especially ones that he doesn’t understand. Thomas’ obsession with language is demonstrated in the way the story is told, in an almost musical way; the author subtly repeats phrases and linguistic fragments, bringing them back and varying them like a theme in a piece of music.

Things to think about

The book begins with a conversation between Guus Kuijer himself and Thomas Klopper. What is the significance of this introduction? Would we have read the book differently without it?

Describe Thomas’ father. What values does he have, what does he think of books and music, what does he think of people?

The action takes place in 1951 and we get glimpses of the Second World War. What role does the war play in the story?

The boundaries between reality and imagination are crossed on several occasions. Can you give some examples?

Mrs Van Amersfoort is sometimes depicted as if she wasn’t actually real. Give examples.

In the first chapter Thomas says that he saw a hailstorm that blew all the leaves off the trees. What is the symbolic importance of this vision?

Jesus appears at various points in the story. What is it that triggers his visits? And what function do Thomas’ conversations with him have?

What picture do we get of Jesus? Try to describe him.

Jesus has similarities with at least some of the other people in the book. Which? And what are the similarities?

What picture does the book give us of God? What does Thomas think about God?

Which books does Mrs Van Amersfoort give Thomas?

Continue reading about things to think about here.

More about Guus Kuijer here.

Book_of_Everything

The Book of Everything (Allen & Unwin 2006)

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