This latest novel from the bestselling Dutch author is a long, lyrical meditation on mourning and identity. Elizabeth Batts Cook is the wife and collaborator to the global explorer Captain James Cook and his widow for more than fifty years. Such a long life might seem a blessing, but for a woman who outlived not only her husband but all six of their children by half her lifespan, memory and endurance become more of a curse. However, Elizabeth observes the world around her with painstaking attention, struggling to make sense of its beauties and its cruelties.
The rhythms of this novel, captured in Eileen J. Stevens’ translation, are slow and intimate, which might frustrate some readers, but which capture Elizabeth’s complex inner life unforgettably. Most of the novel takes place in the suspended periods between Cook’s absences from his London home on the River Thames, as Elizabeth must repeatedly get to know her spouse all over again and help him connect with his surviving sons. This is accomplished through painstaking attention to the small tasks of homemaking, gardening, and letter-writing, and to the emotionally and physically draining pregnancies that Elizabeth endures mostly on her own. It takes Elizabeth years to understand how her devotion to a man who loves the sea above all else has shaped her. After his dramatic death in Hawai’i in 1759, she dedicates her life to nurturing his reputation and writings. Her personal struggle to value her husband’s accomplishments while also wishing to protect her sons from the dangers of naval careers becomes increasingly poignant as the sea claims one after another of her loved ones.
Like an 18th-century still life, this luminous novel captures in heartbreaking detail both the vibrancy of life and the poignancy of decay and loss. It is well worth the investment of time and attention it demands.