By Bert Wagendorp
Translated by Paul Vincent
Published by World Editions, 2015
Ventoux is an extremely engaging Dutch novel which might draw obvious parallels with Tim Krabbe’s 70’s classic “The Rider” and it is superficially about riding that infamous climb and the indelible impact it makes upon a group of friends. However; this is essentially a coming-of-age tale, which resonated with my own and for me at least, has clear nods in the direction of Stephen King’s “IT” and “Stand by me”.
The story begins in 1982, where six teenagers from very different backgrounds meet at secondary school and form a progressively stronger bond. We have Peter, son of Russian immigrants who also happen to own a floating brothel, David, of African parentage parents’ own an adventure tour company, Joost, Bart, Andre.
Their days of laddish classroom chat and occasional lewd remarks are tempered by the arrival of Laura, who ignites a collective and enduring lust/rivalry, masquerading as plutonic friendship. A long summer of philosophising follows (which mirrored my own latter teenage years) involving bikes, hero worship, music, poetry and changing the world...Ultimately, they decide to leave the Netherlands for Provence equipped with an old van, borrowed bikes, inappropriate riding attire and youthful arrogance.
Tragedy strikes on the descent where Peter, group poet and least experienced rider crashes and is pronounced dead by the roadside a’la Tom Simpson in the 1967 Tour De France. Then come the questions, why did an inexperienced rider exceed his capabilities, was technical failure-melting tubular cement to blame, or was it a darker, self destructive force at play?
Reviewed by Michael Stenning
Laura doesn’t ride but is anything but a passenger. She is primarily Peter’s muse and object of all their desires, fusing the group in an undercurrent of lust, yearning, jealousy and rivalry. This in turn leads to some clandestine encounters and blurring of plutonic/sexual boundaries among them.
To mark the 30th anniversary, they reunite, middle aged, better equipped and arguably looking to recapture their youth while honouring their friend. However, while ultimately successful, this trip also unearths some uncomfortable truth about that fateful day and Peter’s motivations.
As I said in my opening paragraph, parallels with fellow Dutch author, Tim Krabbe’s 70’s classic “The Rider” are perhaps, inevitable - Joost even quotes directly from it.
Like several other authors using sport and specifically cycling as a framework/metaphor, there some obvious references to famous framesets, pedal systems but Wagendorp’s strong characterisation, accessible style and intriguing plotline ensures much wider appeal.
Instantly likeable, their characters’ heady mix of angst, love of cycling, music coupled with a desire to leave lasting, revered legacy instantly resonated with my own transition to adulthood some 25 years ago.
Having unravelled some of the mystery and vented other, unresolved frustrations, the group’s second visit is ultimately successful and ghosts lain to rest. Parenthood, death, divorce, career and criminal pasts are also explored very convincingly with humour and refreshingly devoid of morality.
Being critical, two-thirds through, I could almost predict the ending but this was still delivered with sufficient twist to prevent it detracting from the overall storyline. That aside, It ranks alongside the rider and indeed, Matt Seaston’s “The Escape Artist” in a list of books that makes the transition between niche and popular fiction.
REVIEW PUBLISHED MARCH 2016