The Dancer's Spell is the story of Wim Brink, a prig. He's a man adrift in a world changing around him in ways he'd prefer it didn't change.
It's 1905, the Mata Hari is dancing her way through Paris, morals are loosening, automobiles are starting to be seen on the roads, weapons like the machine gun are radically redefining the cost of warfare, and all in all the world is a twitter with change. And Wim would have been significantly happier in 1885.
This is a character driven novel. In many ways, this reads significantly more like a memoir than a novel.
So, I'm reading the memoir of a fictional man who is adrift in the moral climate of 1905. But, for as much as I think Wim would have been unbearable to live with, I did find reading his story, and how he tries to cope with the world around him, compelling.
|The Mata Hari|
He thinks she's the girl he was sweet on back as a young teen.
For those of you, like me, who grew up in the '80s this is basically the plot for the J. Giles Band's song, Centerfold. And while the unnamed narrator of the song deals with it by assuming this means he can now go sleep with his Angel, Wim, a 19th century mind stuck in the early 20th century handles it by having something of a midlife crisis, and desperately trying to find out how his sweetie could have gone so wrong.
One of the things I admire about this story is how perfectly in tune Wim is with the 19th/early 20th century mind. There is no hint of the sexual revolution, feminism, free love, or anything post 1920s about him. He is utterly horrified to see the Mata Hari and on several levels that you just wouldn't expect in a modern man. There's the fact that she is doing something so scandalous. There's a feeling of revulsion that he knew and loved someone who could have done something like this. There's fear that somehow he's tainted by her acts. That just by having known her, decades before she began dancing, that he, too, is sullied by her sins. There's a frantic searching of his own mind and her history, trying to find what catastrophe could lead her on the path of sin, and how to avoid it for his own daughter.
For most modern people, the only time you'd see a reaction like this is if you turned out to be the best friend of the serial killer who just got caught with twenty-three different eyeballs in his freezer. But that's because as members of the 21st century, we don't care all that much about sex. But for Wim, clinging to the 19th century, sex is a big deal.
When it comes to sex, Wim is the model Victorian. The problem is, it's 1905, Queen Victoria's been dead for four years, and that level of sexual repression isn't coming back. This is a man who loves his wife, finds her beautiful, and is still horrified when she tries to seduce him on their wedding anniversary. This is a man who sees sex as something dark, ugly, done only to produce babies, but the world around him is starting to change about that.
So, while the world celebrates the Mata Hari, writes articles about her, and puts her on postcards, he fixates on his cousin, a peasant girl he sees as the epitome of pureness and perfection, untouched by the sullying hand of sex. He starts to create a mental fantasy of Ingrid (the cousin) helping him raise his daughter, helping him mold her into an upright and pure woman, shielding her from bad influences (like his wife, who is not horrified by the Mata Hari in specific or sex in general).
The entire conflict of this story is Wim dealing with Wim's fear/revulsion of sex, and how the world at large, and his family in specific doesn't seem to agree with his mindset.
For depth of character and getting historical attitudes right, this story gets five stars.
The problem lies in the plot and climax. For the plot, there's just not all that much of it, and what plot there is tends to meander about, hovering on episodes and experiences that for all the story is about Wim's internal conflict with Wim, just don't matter. I found myself skimming on at least three occasions, and jumping forward to see how many more pages of (whatever) I'd have to get through before the next section started twice.
Then there's the climax. Given the conflict set up of man v. himself, I was expecting some sort of resolution of the deeper conflict (Wim V. Sex). But Wim doesn't really change. He gets a bit more comfortable with who he is. He realizes, on the verge of doing something very drastic, that he's being a twit, but there's no hint that the underlying issue (sex is bad) is ever resolved. So, by the end of the main thrust of the story, he's doing a better job of managing the symptoms of the problem, but the problem itself remains untouched.
Then there's the... I'll call it an epilogue, since it takes place ten years after the rest of the story. Wim watching the Mata Hari's execution. (In World War I the Mata Hari was tried and executed by the French as a German Spy. Though some historians think she was being used by the French to mask their inept battle plans, in the '70s the Germans released papers showing that she was indeed one of their agents.) I had been hoping for a clear emotional response, after all the man goes well out of his way to see her die, but there's no real sense of conclusion, no clear sense of this is how it ended and this is how Wim feel about it. Maybe that's accurate for the character, maybe he doesn't really know, but it does make for a somewhat unsatisfying ending.
All in all, an intriguing story with a difficult main character. If you love characters you love to hate, Wim might be worth your time. If you love stories where the author stays true to the times and doesn't try to pretty them up for modern eyes, then you'll love Dancer's Spell. If you want a detailed psychological drama, this one will fit the bill.