Survivor's Tale

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There are childhood traumas--and then there is what happened to Ellen van Bemmel in Renate Dorrestein's stunning novel A Heart of Stone (Viking; 244 pages; $23.95), translated from the Dutch by Hester Velmans. In the early '70s, in a quiet suburb of Haarlem, Ellen's psychotic mother killed three of her five children, her husband and herself. Believing she was saving her loved ones from evil, Margreet van Bemmel fed them tranquilizers and put bags over their heads. Ellen and a young brother escaped by hiding in the cellar.

A lifetime of psychotherapy would not seem excessive. But after 25 years, Ellen, divorced and pregnant, decides on unconventional shock treatment. She buys the old Van Bemmel house, moves into the cellar and confronts her ghosts.

Dorrestein shifts flawlessly between past and present, patiently building impact and suspense with scenes of domestic harmony and madness in the making. The household bubbled with high jinks, connubial heat and mutual affection. Mr. Van Bemmel ran a home-based clipping service specializing in American news and culture. As Ellen describes it, "You'd find clippings in the most unlikely places, where someone had dropped them for a moment because the phone was ringing or because someone was at the door." Facts and trivia were in the air, and Ellen absorbed them, from the latest about Vietnam ("We were up to our eyeballs in Kissinger'') to the original names of Hollywood movie stars.

The fusion of a mature Ellen overcoming her basement nightmare and the precocious adolescent Ellen is both fresh and hauntingly familiar. There are the echoes of another spunky Dutch girl that get the reader's imagination working overtime. What sort of chronicle of deaths foretold would Anne Frank have written if she had survived Bergen-Belsen, returned to Amsterdam and moved back to her secret quarters at 263 Prinsengracht?