The Shadow of the Mole

What is sanity? What is real, and what is not? In the midst of the Great War, in the inescapable nightmare of trench warfare, a comatose man is found. He has no identification; he will admit to neither a name nor a past. He believes he is dead, and someone else inhabits his body.

The young physician Michel Denis, himself physically transformed by the war, sees the man, nicknamed The Mole, as a sufferer of shellshock, the term for what we would now call PTSD. His interest in the relatively new medical field of psychiatry encourages him to believe The Mole’s symptoms are both real and treatable—and perhaps a way for Denis to forget his own psychic pain and self-loathing triggered by the loss of an arm.

The Mole begins to write—in ‘automatic writing’—a strange and disturbing story of a dark sexual awakening of a young man with grandiose ideas of his own importance, filled with imagery and archetypes that could be pulled from the unexpurgated Grimm’s tales. His character, Alain Mangin, inhabits the night, mining its secrets both in his role as a investigator and for his own obsessive search for a girl and her brother from his past. But in this novel within a novel, where Alain Mangin may or may not be an alter ego of The Mole, even this shadow figure is unsure if the people he searches for are real or a product of his mind. But Mangin becomes peripherally involved in Dr. Joseph Breuer’s treatment of ‘Anna O’, an actual landmark case in the development of psychiatric treatment and analysis. Reality and the inventions of the mind intertwine in many levels in The Shadow of the Mole, and this is only one of them.

Sight is a recurring image in The Shadow of the Mole; eyes are a motif. Medical staff stop seeing people and see only wounds. Visions are not uncommon among the men in the trenches. Healing in Breuer’s approach comes from looking inward, and Denis believes this is key to treating shellshock and The Mole. But it forces him, too, to look inward, at his own childhood and his own self-revulsion. At the same time, looking outward, observation, is necessary as a doctor and as a witness to the hell of the first World War.

The Shadow of the Mole is a complex, challenging, demanding book, delving into the labyrinth of the human mind, of questions of reality and fantasy, of cruelty intentional and random, of free will and fate, of how we interpret our world through the apparent duality of science and mythos. The writing is evocative; the imagery sometimes horrifying, and the ending chilling. A book that will stay with me for a long time, for the quality of its writing and because it made me think.

Bob van Laerhoven


Bob van Laerhoven is a Belgian writer and traveller whose work has been translated into most European languages, as well as Russian and Chinese.
He made his debut as a novelist in 1985 with “Nachtspel – Night Game.” He quickly became known for his colorful, kaleidoscopic novels in which the fate of the individual is closely related to broad social transformations. His style slowly evolved in his later novels to embrace more personal themes while continuing to branch out into the world at large. International flair has become his trademark.
As a travel writer he has explored conflicts and trouble-spots across the globe from the early 1990s to 2004. Echoes of his experiences on the road also trickle through in his novels. During the Bosnian war, Van Laerhoven spent part of 1992 in the besieged city of Sarajevo. Three years later he was working for MSF – Doctors without frontiers – in the Bosnian city of Tuzla during the NATO bombings.
All these experiences contribute to Bob Van Laerhoven’s rich and commendable oeuvre, as the versatile author of novels, travel stories, theatre pieces, biographies, non-fiction, letters, columns, articles…
His work has received many accolades.

The Hercule Poirot Prize for best crime-novel of the year with “De Wraak van Baudelaire – Baudelaire’s Revenge”
Also for Baudelaire’s Revenge, the USA BEST BOOK AWARD 2014 in the category Fiction: mystery/suspense.
“Dangerous Obsessions” was voted “Best short story collection of 2015: in The San Diego Book Review.
“Heart Fever” was one of the five finalists – and the only non-American author – of the Silver Falchion Award 2018 in the category “Short Stories Collections.”
“Return to Hiroshima”, was listed in the top ten of international crime novels in 2018 in the British quality review blog “MurderMayhem&More”
“Alejandro’s Lie” was named the best political thriller of 2021 by BestThrillers.com