Nine Open Arms

Benny Lindelauf

Nine Open Arms
Allen & Unwin
29 January 2014

Nine Open Arms

Benny Lindelauf

At the end of the world, near the border with Germany, stands a house as long as nine open arms. Half hidden behind trees and shrubs rises a wide brick wall, topped with two attic windows, each no bigger than a dishcloth. The walls have been whitewashed and the wooden floor is bare, as if the house is waiting. Waiting for someone to move in.

It is the summer of 1937, and it hasn’t rained for seven weeks when eleven-year-old Fing and her family of nine move into Nine Open Arms, along with their handcart of meagre belongings. ‘The Dad’ is a man who does all kinds of jobs and none of them well, while Oma Mei courageously holds everything together, including the family’s history in her Crocodile bag full of pictures and stories. But as the year progresses, the family just gets poorer.

Meanwhile, Fing and her two sisters, wild Muulke and fearful Jess, begin to discover strange mysteries … a bed that looks like a tombstone, an unmarked grave in the cemetery … until at last the story of those who came before begins slowly to emerge. In the end, Fing learns that love and stories are her family’s wealth.

Nine Open Arms is an exceptional imagined historical mystery - the story of a very special home, the eccentric families who have lived within it, and the unexpected ties that emerge between the two…


We see many successful adult novels translated to English from the Dutch (a notable release of late being Herman Koch’s The Dinner). Nine Open Arms is welcome proof that young adult publishers recognise the value of translated fiction, too. Originally published in 2003, Nine Open Arms has won several esteemed awards in its native Holland. It’s unclear whether we’ll get the sequel (which has been compared to The Book Thief), but I sincerely hope so. Nevertheless, this story stands alone.

It takes place during the 1930s, in the Netherlands, and follows the trials of a large, motherless family, always on the move because their father – a dreamer – takes risks that never pay off. In fact, they’re destitute and come to live in a dilapidated house at the end of a dusty road, placing them literally on the edge of civilisation.

The narrative is with the eldest girl, Fing, a wise and responsible child, perfectly pitched to show off the more eccentric characters, such as her sister Muulke, who is dramatic and fearless, and her hard-as-nails grandmother, Oma Mei.

The house has its secrets, and somehow they are linked to Fing’s family. We’re taken back to the 1860s to see how. For me, the joy was in the journey more than the revelations, in the warmth and humour alongside the hardship and sadness. Highly recommended for ages 12 and up, with good crossover appeal.

Emily Gale

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