The Thin Line Between – A Memoir. One Family, Three Generations
By Mariëlle Renssen

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Familial interrelationships. A journey into mysticism. Travel. An enduring and not-always-successful drive for self-independence in the need to break the ties that bind. This is a true story across three generations of a single family. Three lives, three very different stories.

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Synopsis - click to read more

100,000 words, 210 pages

Familial interrelationships. A journey into mysticism. Travel. An enduring and not-always-successful drive for self-independence in the need to break the ties that bind. This is a true story across three generations of a single family. Three lives, three very different stories.

Because each story is so widely divergent, based on different experiences yet linked by the genetic connections of family heritage, this memoir is written as a trilogy. It is a story of displacement, emigration, travel to distant lands, and continually starting a new life. A story of love, death, Alzheimer’s, complex family relationships.
The narrative starts in Sumatra, Indonesia, during the Japanese occupation in World War II where Lella’s Dutch grandmother and mother (only 10 at the time), are interned in a concentration camp. The horrors of Japanese cruelty are relived. The second story begins briefly in Holland then moves to Southern Rhodesia, as Lella’s mother, at 24, follows her new husband Henri to Africa to begin a new, unknown future. While Henri tries to establish himself as a tobacco farmer, facing the caprices of weather and farming’s many challenges, it is the 1970s and terrorist activity marks the country’s fight for independence. Henri and his wife are forced to migrate to South Africa to start a new life. The final story focuses on rebellious, free-spirited Lella and her obsessive search for independence from her family. In Cape Town she meets a kindred spirit in Hirsh and together they embark on a nomadic life themselves, travelling around the world, living in different cities and twice on a different continent.
A main thread running throughout the story is Lella’s interest in mysticism and mythology as she’s inducted into astrology, tarot, the runes, and a personal exploration of her surreal dreams. In her efforts to parse the complex relationships with her family, Lella discovers that the boundaries between the material world and the invisible dimension are more porous and permeable than she’d imagined.

About the author - click to read more

Mariëlle has worked variously at a major architectural firm, Fair Lady magazine, YM (a New-York based teenage magazine), and the onetime Struik New Holland, a large publisher of illustrated books, among many other genres. She later became an editorial freelancer and has written and published many non-fiction books, in particular on travel. She and husband Hirsh have lived in Zimbabwe, Cape Town, twice in New York City, and Knysna. They have travelled extensively through Southern Africa, Europe, the American continent and parts of the Middle East. They presently live in Knysna.

Excerpt 1 - March 1942, Tebing Tinggi & Sungai Sengkol, Sumatra - click to read more

To the Concentration Camps

The goods truck rumbled noisily up the road, manned by two uniformed Japanese men, their faces inscrutable. The truck came to a grinding halt, enveloped in a swirl of dust, in front of the Tempelman family ranged on the front steps of their home. It was a forlorn group: Francisca and Jan, his elder sons and eldest daughter Miems, and the three younger ones (Theo, Ciska and my mother Dorie, 10 years old). A sense of doom was thick in the air, making the humidity weigh even heavier on their skin. Two mattresses were propped up against the wall, and two clothing trunks sat on the grass, one for Jan and his older sons, one for Francisca, the girls and Theo (the instructions they had received indicated that boys of 10 or younger were permitted to stay with the women). The trunks held only the most basic necessities: sheets, blankets, some clothing, practical shoes, toiletries, a few precious items, utensils and essential kitchen equipment.

It was November 1942. Francisca and the girls were about to be interned in a temporary camp that had been set up in Tebing Tinggi, together with women from nearby Bindjei. The men were headed for a second camp just west of the capital Medan called Sungai Sengkol.
Two small men jumped out, spat a few guttural phrases at them and with a flick of the head indicated the back of the truck. They made no move to help the family as the males struggled with the bulk of the mattresses and the females crowded round one of the trunks, each taking a corner in an effort to lift it. When they got to the open back, panting and sweating profusely, they discovered that it was already packed with perspiring bodies, suitcases, trunks and items of household furniture.

Some shuffling around took place: luggage scraped into tighter corners, shifting of people to rearrange themselves on trunks and suitcases, a tangle of helping hands. The mattresses were pulled, dragged, shoved, and eventually balanced on top of a pile of household items that had now reached the roof. Miems, Ciska, Theo and Dorie squeezed together onto one trunk, three adults on the second one, and Jan was left to crouch as best he could, robust girth getting in the way, in a last corner of the truck near the opening.

Dorie looked around her in bewilderment, seeing the panic-stricken faces, some with tears running down their cheeks, some holding their head in their hands, others with lips moving as they prayed silently, eyes pressed closed as if to shut out the horror they were faced with. The siblings gripped each other’s hands tightly. It was the only sense of reassurance left to them in their tiny collapsed cosmos. Their world had been reduced to a single soap bubble escaped from a bucket. Disembodied and discrete, it confined them within fragile walls that reflected frightened faces back at them.

Excerpt 2 - Henri - click to read more

A Fog Drifts In

We are standing under a row of plane trees alongside the N2 highway in Sedgefield. A neutral spot. Two families: Allison, Djirck, Papa and Maltese poodle Arfur; Hirsh and I. Djirck has said unequivocally that he wants nothing to do with settling Papa into the Alzheimer’s house. He simply cannot go through with it, cannot bear to abandon his father, drive away knowing he will probably never see him again. It is a terrible, terrible betrayal.

The tight knot is again in the pit of my stomach. We greet one another, hug. Papa is a little distracted, a little disoriented. He stands a bit to the side, smoking, with Arfur sniffing the new, strange territory around his feet. Allison whispers an aside to me that Papa is tired, it has been a long journey, his head is confused with all the goings-on and newness of things. After we’ve spoken a short while, Allison and I herd Papa and Arfur into their vehicle, Hirsh and Djirck get into Hirsh’s Land Rover. He is going to take my brother off somewhere to distract him.

“Papa,” I say, “Allison and Djirck just need to go off and do some business with the transport trucks. We’re going to take you to their friends, just for a day. They’re going to look after you while Djirck sorts out his affairs. They’re very nice.”

“Heh?” he says in his thick Dutch accent, a little surprised.

“It’ll be fine, Papa, it’s just for a short while,” I say, my heart beating in my throat. Allison has tears in her eyes.

We stop outside the front gate of the facility. Ilse is waiting for us. She comes out immediately, with welcoming arms, a couple of staff members behind her. With all the introductions and voices and laughter, Papa is completely befuddled. “You must be so tired after your long journey, Henri,” says Ilse putting her arms around his shoulders. “Come, come inside, I’ll make you a nice cup of tea. I’m sure you’d like that.”

“Ooh, tea, that sounds good,” says Papa. “Yes, please.” He is led off like a lamb to the slaughter. Allison and I get moving quickly. We’ve brought duvet covers and pillowcases from home so that he will awaken to something familiar. Together with his clothes, Allison has packed photos and a few personal effects to make his immediate space resemble home. Ilse has already briefed me on when next I should see him. It is inadvisable to visit a newly installed Alzheimer’s patient before a period of three weeks is up, she said. This gives the person time to adjust to his new surroundings, get into a routine, and start to feel familiar with the changed environment.

Ilse has warned us not to linger too long, simply to leave it to her, and to make a quick exit. With the stressfulness of the situation, Allison and I are quite happy to take this advice. With quick hugs, chimes of “See you soon, Papa!”, lots of waving, we hurry down the path and into the car. A flood of tears erupts. Allison drives the car around the corner, out of sight, then brakes. We both sit there, shaking and sobbing. “That was awful! SO awful!” chokes Allison. “I just can’t bear to think we’re not going to see him again.”

Critical Reviews - click to read more

In this trilogy of three generations, the account of Lella’s grandparents’ years in a Japanese internment camp is very good in bringing to life the terror and indignity of that experience. As for Mariëlle’s parents, an effective portrait is presented of two people with big dreams who, through no fault of their own, never quite make it in a new land. The anguish of gradually losing her parents, and Mariëlle’s powerlessness to arrest that decline, rings with truth as does her strained relationship with brother Djirck, whose shocking decline in health brings a genuinely poignant note to the story.
The third, and final, generation deals mainly with the relationship between Hirsh and Mariëlle. We get a real sense of the person in the portrait of Hirsh, and of the ‘meeting of minds’ that is the essence of their partnership, ups, downs and all.
The writing is of a high quality.
Alfred LeMaitre, Independent Editor & Consultant


Very brave, the ability to open herself and be so vulnerable and honest. Mariëlle is fearless in facing the truths that have made her feel uncomfortable. Working with family history is all about plugging into our ancestors … while her story is complex she really has allowed the reader to understand how the roots of her life developed under such interesting circumstances.
The story of both her mom, but especially her dad, took me days to sit with before moving on in the book. I have had a thousand thoughts and feelings while reading it, and it has given me much room for self-reflection.
I also loved the esoteric weave throughout the book. What a beautiful gift Mariëlle has for writing.
Sheryl Snow, Shaman & Transpersonal Psychologist

Feedback to Mariëlle Renssen - click to read more