Books & Literature

Book Review: The Hitchhiker, by Gerwin Van Der Werf

LITERARY FICTION: Taut and compelling, The Hitchhiker is the story of a man who goes to great lengths to save what he has already lost.

A masterful, disturbing, and utterly satisfying work.

Tiddo and Isa have been together for 20 years, but have not had sex in the last eight. Drifting apart, they still decide to take a trip to Iceland along with their 13-year-old son Jonathon. This is Isa’s trip of a lifetime, and for Tiddo it is a chance to save their marriage. And it is he who narrates the story, sharing his desperation to recapture his closeness with Isa, and also with Jonathon, who has become a quiet, quirky stranger to him.

As they start their journey in the campervan that will be their home for the next two weeks, Isa persuades Tiddo to let them pick up a hitchhiker, Svein. A tall, tanned, Icelandic-American, Svein starts to inveigle his way into the affections of both Isa and Jonathon, triggering even more anxiety in Tiddo. Who exactly is this man? Is he what he says he is, or something darker? And meanwhile, why is Tiddo so reluctant to call his elderly mother and let her know that they are okay?

This is the first novel by Dutch author Gerwin Van Der Werf to be translated into English, and let’s hope it’s not the last. The Hitchhiker delivers a psychological slow-burn that still feels pacey. Hours of languid travel through the moonscape beauty of northern Iceland are compacted into short chapters which keep the tension boiling like a geyser, yet without feeling rushed. Seeing everything through Tiddo’s eyes, the reader’s feelings for him move from sympathy to irritation, to fear, and back again. Just as he doesn’t know quite who he is dealing with in Svein, neither do we in Tiddo.

Van Der Werf writes with clarity and assuredness. One has the sense that no word is unnecessary, and no sentence out-of-place. And although the psychological tension nudges the dark, it yet remains within the realm of the quotidian, making it that much more real. His writing, both in style and content, is redolent of that of his fellow countryman, Herman Koch (The Dinner; Summer House with Swimming Pool). And he uses the extraordinary landscape, not as pretty background, but as a character in its own right, with its own insistent needs and desires that inform those of the other characters. The narrative is structured around two parts of the journey: The Ring Road, and The Highlands, echoing Tiddo’s own journey towards the edge of madness. While the family explores volcanoes and glaciers, Van Der Werf explores the family, marriage, trust, and love.

The Hitchhiker is a taut, psychologically lush, and utterly fulfilling novel, with narrative echoes of an old Icelandic saga. Sharply translated by David Colmer, this is that rare beast: a work of literary fiction that will also satisfy the lovers of thrillers and crime fiction.

Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Twitter: @TraceyKorsten

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not necessarily of Glam Adelaide.

Distributed by: Text Publishing
Released: July 2022
RRP: $32.99

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