The ramifications of today’s collective isolation form the crux of the contemporary crises scrutinized in Gerda Blees’s incisive debut novel We Are Light, now available from World Editions in Michele Hutchison’s translation. Originally published in Blees’s native Netherlands in 2020, during the initial pandemic lockdown, the novel won the European Union Prize for Literature the following year. We Are Light evaluates the culpability and interdependence of cohabitating commune members after one of them dies from severe malnutrition. The four members of the Sound & Love Commune have liberated themselves from a dependence on food, “a massively addictive and distracting factor in [their] lives,” in an attempt to live on light and air alone. Elisabeth van Hellingen, whose last name in Dutch denotes “from the light,” is the oldest member of the commune, which her younger sister Melodie founded. As Elisabeth wastes away in the weeks leading up to her death, and even on the evening that opens the novel when she becomes unresponsive and dies, her three housemates do nothing but watch. Melodie, Muriel, and Petrus are subsequently taken into custody “on suspicion of culpable homicide,” and while they are separated, the novel lays out how they came together and arrived at their extremist stance. Only when they are reunited, however, do readers truly glimpse Melodie’s methodical manipulation.
The chilling subtlety of these later scenes derives primarily, for English readers, from the skill of Hutchison’s translation. As the translator of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s International Booker Prize–winning novel The Discomfort of Evening (2018), Hutchison is no stranger to intensely uneasy situations, and in We Are Light, she adeptly presents Melodie as almost nonchalant or oblivious to her deviousness, which she may genuinely be. But it’s Hutchison’s handling of the novel’s exposition that is truly masterful, varying the length of sentences and deploying punctuation to speed the reader along or force them to pause. The novel’s conclusion had me hanging on every word, genuinely terrified to proceed for fear of what lay beyond the next space, comma, or period, evoking an almost physical trepidation.
Prior to that denouement, a slow-motion murder mystery plays out that investigates our reliance on technology, our tolerance of difference, our compulsion to control or be controlled, our efforts to conform to society’s expectations (both tacit and explicit), our responsibility to others (both strangers and loved ones), the insidious scourge of eating disorders, and much more. What makes this weighty litany so accessible is Blees’s novel approach to narrative. Most of the book’s 25 chapters are narrated by objects or concepts, starting with “the night” and ending with “the light.” In between, testimonials also arrive from a pen, the World Wide Web, two cigarettes, cognitive dissonance, Melodie’s cello, Elisabeth’s corpse, and more, including a couple of conventional human characters. Even “the story” itself chimes in, wryly speculating that it’s going to end in “an anti-climax, if the writer carries on this way.”
These narrators sometimes serve as omniscient stenographers, repeating what they have overheard, seen, or perceived. Other times, they share opinions that are decidedly sentient and reflective of personal prejudices and (often amusing) biases. The cello wants to be taken from its case and played. The pen thrills at getting “mouth contact,” as well as being used to write something substantive: “A letter! Yes! A letter! […] Our very first time and already being used for a letter.” Some of the commentary paints with a broader brush, as when “daily bread” laments how it was once blessed and beloved by Christians but now has been “sent to the doghouse” for “too much gluten, and the wrong carbohydrates.”
The history of the commune comes from the “crime scene”—i.e., the group’s home. Melodie has lived there the longest, first with her girlfriend after college and then alone after that relationship ended, one of the seminal events of her life. We don’t learn what caused the break-up, only that as a result she stops playing the cello, quits teaching music, and starts offering therapy sessions. After one week-long group retreat, she invites the participants to move in with her so they can “dive deep and soar high” together. The only takers are Muriel and Petrus. A week later, after experiencing an unexplained breakdown, Elisabeth joins them. The fiftysomething Elisabeth has been single her entire life, and damaged, it is suggested, by both the “failings of society” and her family. She speaks so infrequently that the crime scene has forgotten the sound of her voice. Her silence “drove the others crazy at times. But when she did try to say something, she was interrupted before she could finish.”
The four sleep on air mattresses and practice daily meditations. They hum together and play Renaissance-era musical instruments, including lutes and viola da gambas. They have a matrix that allots computer time, though Elisabeth never uses either machine. They earn money at first partly through an arts grant, but the 2008 financial crisis eliminates the funding and reduces them to subsisting on Elisabeth’s welfare. In the decade they have been together, the benefits have been questionable. As the crime scene puts it, “though they often said out loud how much they liked each other, though they’d planned weekly slots to tell each other why they were so happy together, even we, just a simple 1980s house, could tell from their faces that half of what they were saying wasn’t true.” It seemed as if the four had “trapped each other in a cage of loneliness.”
Two years before Elisabeth’s death, the group enrolled in an expensive nine-day online course to eliminate their dependence on food. In a chapter narrated by “psychological resistance,” we are told that Petrus believed at the time that “all those books and courses might be expensive but they could give you a priceless amount of freedom.” According to the commune’s neighbors, however, the group may have “talked about spiritual liberation, but looking at their faces it was more like spiritual punishment.” And indeed, to any outside observer, they were simply starving themselves, living on tea, celery juice, an occasional apple, and little else. When Elisabeth and Melodie’s mother is put in assisted living because of her dementia, which wrenchingly narrates one of Blees and Hutchison’s most bravura chapters, the commune’s daily trips to the nursing home increase the strain on their already drained bodies.
Through it all, Melodie maintains that the group is stronger together, telling her legal counsel, “We’re not four separate people. We belong together.” She speaks with the borrowed buzzwords and preternatural calm of an archetypical New Ager, hippie, or elementary school teacher, sensing the feel of a room or an object, stifling doubt or disinterest with distracting platitudes, and focusing on unity in the face of adversity. She also plays the martyr at every turn, telling the others that it “feels like quite a responsibility” to deal with all their emotions, especially as she believes she knows “more about what’s going on inside” them than they do. She elicits both genuine sympathy and utter revulsion. Like that of many cult leaders, Melodie’s philosophy, if it is cohesive enough to merit such a label, is founded on laudatory goals—spending less, consuming less, leaving a smaller footprint—that get corrupted by overreach or personal shortcomings. Once the three housemates are separated in their holding cells, it’s as if Petrus and Muriel have logged off from Melodie’s feed. Trapped alone with their analog thoughts, they don’t know what they believe.
Petrus originally sought out therapy when he was “fired again after yet another fight,” but despite all his years with Melodie, he still can’t always manage his anger. “The scent of oranges,” which narrates one chapter, acts as an olfactory madeleine for him, recalling his memories of being bullied as a child and triggering his rage as he undergoes police questioning. He starts to doubt whether he really understands what he has been told by Melodie, and the longer he remains in custody, the more his doubts grow.
But Muriel’s doubts are greater still, narrating their own chapter. Before the commune, she went to business school and worked in a tax advice office, but she never felt she was reaching her full potential. Rather than help her thrive, her early therapy sessions with Melodie merely increased the distance between herself and her friends, colleagues, and family, until she finally left them behind. From her holding cell, Muriel reexamines her actions the night of Elisabeth’s death, but her attorney, unwittingly acting as Melodie’s surrogate, advises her to stifle those thoughts. Nevertheless, they fester. She also realizes that she has been constantly hungry for two years. It is implied that Muriel has body image issues, though in the narrative of the novel, her relationship to food is destructive largely because she is in thrall to Melodie, who preys on her insecurities.
We Are Light does include, astutely in my opinion, a side character who is genuinely dealing with anorexia, a subject that is rarely addressed seriously in adult fiction, with the notable exception of Diana Clarke’s 2020 novel Thin Girls. Nina, the lead investigator’s young daughter, has gone from dieting to being “unhealthily skinny” in a few months, hiding laxative pills (and threatening notes to her mother), seeking out online “tips for anorexic girls,” and eating only about 500 calories per day. The investigator’s experience with her daughter impacts her handling of the case and leads to conflict with her boorishly insensitive colleague.
The fact that a story about what is possibly an assisted suicide is set in the Netherlands, the first country to legalize euthanasia, adds another poignant dimension to We Are Light. The commune’s neighbors, who are flawed, prejudiced, and hypocritical, emphasize repeatedly that they live in a free country, yet they still wonder about the choices made by the commune members. But in questioning the actions of Melodie, Muriel, and Petrus, the novel seeks less to judge them—and explicitly withholds opinion at crucial times—than to try to understand why they did what they did (or didn’t do) and, as a corollary, why so many in society behave similarly to them.
Reflecting on all of this, I thought about the subway car full of New Yorkers who watched in May 2023 as Jordan Neely was murdered by another straphanger. I thought about Conrad Roy III killing himself in 2014 as a result of Michelle Carter’s abusive text messages. And I thought about a lot of things that aren’t as closely connected to the novel’s themes but that relate to them nonetheless. Things like social media and our addiction to it. Right-wing politicians, tech billionaires, and other entitled white men. All the manipulative, abusive snake-oil salesmen who are fêted by the media even after they have been revealed as the opportunists they have always been. The cult of worship surrounding guns and the police and ignorance and American exceptionalism. As a society, we feel so much closer to the darkness than the light lately. While I’m not delusional enough to believe that humanity can live solely on the latter, I sure wish we didn’t take shelter so often in the former.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.