Shutterspeed – Erwin Mortier

Joris Alderweireldt is a young Flemish boy struggling to fit in and find his place in the world. His father died when he was little and his mother moved to Spain leaving Joris in the care of Aunt Laura and Uncle Werner. Obsessed with getting to know his father (Uncle Werner’s twin) and forge his own special relationship with the past, Joris pours over old photos of his parents and clings to his own limited memories, and those retold by his aunt and uncle, as if they were key to bringing his father back to life. In this way the story is not plot driven or chronological but instead meanders throughout time, piecing together a glimpse of family history and creating a fractured picture of loss, confusion, indifference and naivety all associated with growing up.

At times the language of Shutterspeed is rather laboured with poetic descriptions and imagery with Erwin Mortier preferring to linger on a particular memory or detail to give the reader a sense of place rather than to inform. In this way we are able to get a better idea of what is happening internally with our main character and how his life has influenced his perception of the every day.

Through his eyes we are also given a glimpse of how he is seen by others, especially his school teacher referred to as the master or Mr Snellaert throughout the novel. What I found the most interesting about his interactions with his teacher was how Mr Snellaert was both tormentor and mentor in one, preferring to berate Joris relentlessly in front of other students yet loaning him complex books on human anatomy and science outside of class to encourage his love of reading and intellectual growth. Joris never attempts to change this dynamic but seems to embrace it, relishing a little in the role of class clown or disruptive force; “At school one day, when Mr Snellaert asked whether anyone could remember what the Flemings’ battle cry had been during the Bruges uprising… I jumped up from my desk without thinking and shouted ‘For gland and glory!’ My voice was so loud that even I was startled. There was a long pause while the master rolled his eyes. He waited for the gales of laughter to die down, then came up to me quite calmly and gave me a resounding clip around the ear. ‘What you need is a thorough drubbing,’ he said in conclusion, wiping his hand on his dust coat. After that I sometimes had the feeling that I was winding him up for the sole purpose of getting a thorough drubbing, so that I could secretly enjoy the humiliation of having my bones shaken up like an earthquake.” With Joris acknowledging the fact that Mr Snellaert was once his father’s teacher you get the feeling that Joris considers Mr Snellaert as not just a teacher but also another link to discovering the lost father he yearns for.

As Joris continues to navigate his way through his youth it becomes apparent that he is merely a passenger throughout life’s twists and turns. His decisions are seldom his own and he is often bound by what is expected of him rather than his own goal or desires. While he is not overly sentimental or one for leading the way, he begins to understand that it’s the little moments in life we are given that make up the bigger picture.

If you appreciate a retrospective read and a passive narrative then I recommend you pick up a copy of Shutterspeed and take a wander with Joris as he paints you a somewhat confusing picture of his childhood and all that it meant to him.

First published in The Australia Times Books

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