“I’m a very focused person,” Vander Aa tells me, “so I eventually chose for self-study to concentrate on a story that I started writing as a hobby out of interest for the period. It was very satisfying, almost therapeutic, and before I knew it, I had half a manuscript. So I decided to keep on going.”
In the States, Vander Aa, 28, was confronted with a completely different lifestyle that put everything in perspective, making her aware of the charms of an old European city and its almost fairy tale-like atmosphere.
De lichtekooi van Loven is set in 18th-century Leuven – or Loven as it was called then. It tells the story of 15-year-old Louise, who is forced to make ends meet as a prostitute after her father dies. Vander Aa (pictured) fills the book with sumptuous descriptions, evocative of the time and place. The dialogues are written in the Flemish vernacular of the time, adding to this novel’s authentic atmosphere.
“I chose Leuven because I was reading a lot of historical fiction about London and Paris but hardly ever anything about Belgium, let alone Leuven, which also has a very interesting history,” she explains. The author was born and raised close by the city in Kortenberg, “so it was quite interesting to find out what this place used to be like.”
The result of her seven-year endeavour is a classic historical novel reminiscent of Walter Scott, Gustave Flaubert or, more recently, Sarah Waters. Vander Aa masterfully gests into the mind of a young girl faced with many Dickensian hardships.
“I carried Louise with me for quite a while,” she says. “In fact, she’s still with me. I love watching and reading period pieces, so I had a vivid image of her, of what a girl living in that age would look and even feel like. That’s when I started researching and trying to figure out what it must have been to survive as a prostitute in the 18th century.”
The story is very much plot and character driven but also manages to give a vibrant depiction of the intellectual and social developments in a city where change is lurking around every corner. “In the beginning, I was mainly writing out of interest, not because I wanted to get published, so I was mostly emphasising the story,” says Vander Aa. “The details, descriptions and atmosphere, which are necessary to make the novel realistic, came later. Subjects such as psychology, philosophy and religion are things that I personally find important, so they flowed naturally into the story.”
From female emancipation to feminine hygiene, it’s all there. “I wanted the story to be as realistic as possible because I find the taboos in our society annoying,” she continues. “Some feelings are still being covered up too much, and some things are simply beyond our control. Then again, I was conflicted because reality can already be so harsh so why emphasise it?”
It was difficult “finding the right balance between realism and romanticism,” she admits. “But at the end of the day, I believe there’s no greater comfort than knowing that what you’re feeling is normal.”
In the end, De lichtekooi walks that fine line between realism and romanticism beautifully, with poise and vigour. “I believe that everyone has their own truths,” Vander Aa adds. “Whoever we are, we’re all looking for warmth, affection and answers. Our basic needs are the same, which is kind of the message of the novel.”
De lichtekooi takes you back in time to a city that has had one hell of a makeover. Take your time to enjoy Flanders past and to be swept away by an eclectic cast of wonderful characters and a world full of change, adversity and longing. “I’ve been living with this story for such a long time that, now that it’s published, it feels like letting people look inside my head.”
by Geert de Kockere • Houtekiet
Normally a children’s book author, Geert de Kockere has just published his second novel for adults. Gezond weer op explores the strange relationship between nature and finance. Dorian is the director of a successful communications agency until one day he decides to sell it and leave town. After being seduced by a woman called Véronique, he suddenly comes face to face with the world’s most powerful bankers, who make him an odd offer: convince all farmers to sell their land to the banks. What are they planning? The result is a psychological power play that keeps you on your toes.
by Christophe Vekeman •
Gwen soon realises that the world is a complicated place for those who want to do the right thing. She embarks on a rocky journey, looking for answers and her purpose in life because there’s one thing of which she’s sure: She’s destined for greatness. Een uitzonderlijke vrouw is the latest novel by Christophe Vekeman and his best to date, filled with comic details, contemporary philosophy, subtly swaying sentences and a kick-ass main character.
by Kristien Dieltiens • De eenhoorn
Kelderkind is the 50th novel by children’s author Kristien Dieltiens and was based on the true story of Kaspar Hauser, a 16-year-old boy who appeared on the marketplace of Neurenberg in 1828 after having been locked up in a cellar for his entire life. He’s never seen the moon, the stars or even other people. Dieltiens has created a mesmerising fictional diary for Kaspar, showing us the world through the eyes of an innocent adolescent faced with beauty, cruelty and infinite wonders.
by Paul Jacobs • Houtekiet
Former VRT radio producer-turned-author Paul Jacobs has written crime fiction, columns and short stories and now returns with a new collection featuring 13 stories on that thing called love. A writer finds the love of his life strolling in the book fair, a tourist falls for the charms of a mysterious woman in the South of France – these are two of the soulful tales that make Zeer van harte a bittersweet mix that will touch even the most cynical of hearts.