‘Femke’, by David Cameron

Femke is the first novel I have encountered from Taproot Press, an Edinburgh-based publisher founded in 2020 by two students, Patrick Jamieson and Daniela Silva, whose commitment to ‘presenting challenging, contemporary voices from both Scotland and beyond’ brought them firmly to my attention when looking through the latest emergent talents. With a mission statement of such intent and a focus on texts which are likely to provoke or confront, it is undoubtedly not the last we will hear of them on these pages and that can only be a positive. The author, David Cameron, lived in Amsterdam – where the novel is set – for a number of years and is best known as a poet. Given the talent and confidence of his writing showcased in Femke, Cameron’s fourth novel, I suspect that his reputation for fiction will continue to grow, with greater recognition, too, surely heading his way. 

Femke, the eponymous protagonist, is a flaneur with a fondness for falsehoods and an affection for ‘the bearded misfit, Van Gogh’. In Fresian her name means ‘girl’ or ‘peace’, the latter a suitable juxtaposition against her fragmented and chaotic lifestyle. From the start she introduces the reader to her ‘weirdness’. This weirdness takes the form of trances, which turn out to be epileptic seizures that she blames on her mother – ‘a witch’ – who has a volatile and suspicious relationship with her husband whom she perpetually accuses of infidelity. Her father, deceased, was imbued with the trappings of colonialism and in his presence ‘Africa’ was mentioned with a telling frequency. With her dog Bibi, her most loyal companion, Femke traverses the streets and parks of turn-of-the-century Amsterdam where she encounters the drug addicts, the decaying and the dead. A habitue of squats and taker of drugs, Femke has a sharp tongue and an acerbic wit. 

In the first half of the novel, Femke encounters an English filmmaker and his wife and becomes enmeshed in their relationship. However, this comes to an abrupt end when she discovers their intentions for her. By the second half Femke has begun a process of transformation – obtaining a secure roof over her head, finding employment (though her assignments vary from cleaning to prostitution before she is able to escape) – and her seizures have become noticeably less frequent. One evening she comes across an elderly man on a park bench and, as the conversation develops, they become closer but platonic and she begins to tease out his personal story. 

The new acquaintance turns out to be Michiel de Koening, a poet with an enigmatic past who has stopped writing. Michiel is a convalescent, whisky-drinking admirer of Robert Louis Stevenson who has the affectations of a loveable cad, just the right side of edgy to engage Femke but not a threat. Femke determines to turn detective and thus begins her question to track down the elusive ‘M’ in his sonnet sequence, his one true love and the potential Muse he seeks to reignite his passion. 

Cameron has noted that the idea for the novel was inspired by his friend, Robert Nye, who challenged him to write about Gerrit Achterberg, a ‘Dutch poet diagnosed as a sexually deviant psychopath.’ An admirer of Achterberg’s poetry, Cameron had attempted a number of translations of his work yet objected to Nye’s suggestion due to knowing ‘next to nothing’ about the poet – an advantage, Nye mischieviously countered. This nugget gleaned from an article by Cameron explains why the blending of the historical and the fictional, in the Modernist tradition, makes Femke such a pleasurable challenge to read and absorb. Cameron’s writing manages to blur the boundaries so that identifying the fictional character from its source is difficult and the pace of the narrative is such that a lot appears to happen in a short space of time, yet at no point does it feel loose or contrived. Notably, the second half of the book felt clearer and more engaging than the second half – whether this is intentional or a consequence of the plot is difficult to determine, but if that’s the most sustained objection one can raise to a novel then it barely warrants more than a brief mention and is certainly not a criticism. 

One consistent triumph in Cameron’s writing is that he manages to confidently and clearly allow Femke her voice, an achievement in the culturally burdensome and problematic times we currently live in. This accomplishment (and the lack of challenge or negative attention it has received) proves the quality of the writing combined with a blistering ear for language. I could gladly spend more time reading the exploits and perspectives which Cameron’s characters bring to the table and look forward to seeing where his next writing venture takes us. 

Femke is published by Taproot Press

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