Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

On the Water

by H. M. van den Brink Translated from Dutch by Paul Vincent

“In beautifully vivid writing, van den Brink describes the grace, ecstasy and agony of rowing, the miracle of its teamwork harmony.” —Washington Post

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 144
  • Publication Date May 20, 2002
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3895-8
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $18.00

About The Book

In the golden Amsterdam summer of 1939 on a crystal river in Holland, two young oarsmen train with a rather mysterious German coach. Anton, a shy teenager from a lower-class family, is paired with David, self-assured and affluent, and suddenly into Anton’s drab life there is the river, boats, woods, the flash of sunlight on the copper oarlocks, and his strong, silent, almost amorous understanding of David. All summer, a quiet obsession and magical bond forms between them as the intensity of their training and competitions increases. Yet up ahead, the war looms, and the menace of tragedy to come is a nearly silent record whose faint music plays through strenuous training sessions and majestic afternoons on the water.

“Brilliantly written,” applauds Denmark’s major newspaper, Politiken. “Your heart literally beats with these two boys as they struggle their way to their goal.” But the goal was not to be, and on the wintry eve of Holland’s liberation five years later, Anton stands on the banks of his beloved river and remembers the majestic summer he spent with David. The story is told with the past and present flipping back and forth like oars, from the prewar summer on the water in 1939 to the same city five years later, stripped of life by the war. Now the boathouse is derelict and deserted, and the river reflects only bombers roaring across the sky from England to Nazi Germany. David has long since disappeared, and the starving city is a cruel, shadowy reminder of what once was. Spare, lyrical, and affecting, On the Water has been published in seven countries to critical acclaim and was nominated for several prestigious awards. Its unforgettably eloquent voice moves as smoothly and easily as the very water from which it grew.


“In beautifully vivid writing, van den Brink describes the grace, ecstasy and agony of rowing, the miracle of its teamwork harmony.” —Washington Post

“H.M. van den Brink’s debut novella meticulously depicts the transcendent quiet at the core of an oarsman’s exertions. His prose is as evanescent as the light on the surface of a river, and he treats history—in this case the early, foreboding days of World War II—as an easel painter would. By studying color and light—the fleeting moods and images of a long-ago summer, the bricks and canals of Amsterdam—he manages to evoke an entire lost era, a forgotten Europe. . . . [an] affecting, ghostly book.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“[A] powerful tale of romantic regret.” —Seattle Times

“Van den Brink saves his novel from sentimentality with a restrained evocation of the greater loss that stalks this crew’s glorious last season, a loss that would go on to drown Europe.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer

“The metaphor or rowing gathers a rich nexus of meaning in this terse, haunting novel. . . . On the Water is a work of real originality, and a fine introduction to a splendid new novelist.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A sensitively written and finely tuned work.” —Publishers Weekly

“There is in these pages a kind of miracle of writing. If you doubt the power of language, the force of words used with precision, if you doubt that literature can still be written in the wake of history—then read On the Water.” —Le Figaro (France)

“On the eve of World War II, two young men find themselves bound to a passion more powerful than any they will know. With Bernard Schlink’s The Reader and Erri de Luca’s Sea of Memory, this new European novella traces the clouds of war back to a time where illusions were the order of the day, giving a tragic cast to the indifference of youth and the anxiety of remembrance.” —André Aciman, author of Out of Egypt

“With On the Water, van den Brink captures the essence of athleticism with an admirable power and precision. This perfectly coordinated narrative stands out brightly against the dark, anarchic shadow of its pre-World War II Dutch setting.” —Madison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls’ Rising

On the Water is a superb elegy to a time and a friendship that history destroyed. Hans Maarten has a gift for understatement and elegance. By keenly maintaining his focus on the smallest details of an unlikely friendship between two Dutch boys in the late 1930s, he uncovers the great panorama of changes the onset of war wrought on a city, a nation, and a young man.” —Matthew Stadler, author of Allan Stein

“A radiating novella.” —Frankfurter Allgemeine (Germany)

“Brilliantly written . . . Your heart literally beats with these two boys as they struggle their way to their goal.” —Politiken (Denmark)

“An impeccable, profound and subtle piece of writing: elegant and serene on the surface, with dangerous unfathomable currents pulling away underneath.” —The Daily Mail (London)