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Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill, By Dimitri Verhulst

Sombre tale hits the high spots

Ageing, bereavement and death are sombre themes, yet this novel's treatment of them is agreeably entertaining. It is set in rural Flanders, where the widowed Madame Verona has become old and infirm. As the story opens one cold February day, she realises she can no longer walk unaided back up the hill from the village to her home. So she takes the clear-eyed decision that this is where her life should end. Accompanied by her latest dog – strays are always seeking her out – she ventures down the hill to sit out her final hours on a municipal bench as snow falls and freezing night descends.

Madame Verona has outlived her idiosyncratic husband, Monsieur Potter, a composer prone to melancholy. Upon his first sight of their elevated abode, he said he liked it because he thought it a good home to be unhappy in. When the vet told him he was terminally ill (the nearest doctor is much too far away), he hung himself from a tree. Madame Verona had a cello made from the tree's wood, an innovative memorial marred only by appalling acoustics.

Dimitri Verhulst is an engagingly roundabout writer, and the village's eccentric inhabitants populate many digressions. When the vet takes the blood pressure of human patients she absent-mindedly grabs them in headlocks, in case of bites. Robert the local miser rations his execrable cigars by writing precise lighting-up times on their bands. In the damp canteen of the old cinema, the villagers play table football in between prodigious drinking and smoking.

Madame Verona rises serenely over the brutal bathos of rural life as the radiance from her relationship with her husband continues to sustain her. Before dying, Monsieur Potter chopped what he hoped would be enough firewood to last his wife the rest of her days and, fortuitously, the final log is burning when she leaves. Translated by David Colmer, this tale of enduring love is often preposterous, sometimes poignant and, above all, consistently charming.

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