Wednesday, May 19, 2010

'The Twin' by Gerbrand Bakker

Here's the sell: you've really got to read this translated book about a Dutch farmer in his late 50s whose twin brother died in a car accident decades ago, who's never had a holiday from his work on a small holding in a dull part of Holland, whose family consists solely of his bedridden cantankerous elderly father, and who spends most of his time with his livestock and two donkeys. Oh, and his ultimate fantasy is to escape this life and move all the way to ... Denmark.

Since your attention is presumably right now turning to other matters, I'd better quickly add that if you don't take up this recommendation, you'll be missing a wonderful literary experience. Gerbrand Bakker's The Twin is a masterpiece, a tenderly-written and haunting piece of fiction that should surely win the 2010 IMPAC award.

The original Dutch title translates to something like ‘It's quiet upstairs’, and the arresting opening sets a tone maintained perfectly for the rest of the book: I've put Father upstairs. I had to park him on a chair first to take the bed apart. He sat there like a calf that's just a couple of minutes old, before it's been licked clean: with a directionless, wobbly head and eyes that drift over things.

This is the voice of Helmer van Wonderen. We spend 283 pages inside his head and yet are never absolutely sure where we are going next. Vivien Mercier's crack was that Waiting for Godot was a play in which ‘nothing happens, twice’; and we might feel that The Twin is a novel in which nothing happens many times. But, as with Godot, watching this is gripping. I took 10 days to read this relatively short novel, deliberately pausing as it kept sneaking into my thoughts at odd times, finding my own reading pace taking on the rhythm of the story-telling itself. At times you feel you're looking at Vermeer in the 21st century. Helmer's narration is steady, laconic, teasing. Perhaps a reason why this style is so compelling is that you never feel you've entirely 'got' the protagonist, just as some people in real life always elude our attempts to pin them down.

The pleasures of the book are myriad. If you didn't know it was translated (by David Colmer) you couldn't possibly guess: the English is fresh, clean and natural. The sense of place, in the house and farm and further afield in Holland, is powerful. Other characters are memorably drawn - neighbour Ada and her young children Ronald and Teut, Riet (the girlfriend of Helmer's dead identical twin Henk) and her son, also called Henk, the farmhand Jaap, the father upstairs in his last weeks of life (shades of Hamlet and Great Expectations). But listing such qualities doesn't explain the sheer power of this subtle novel: just trust me and read it.


Other reviews:-
In The Complete Review : 'an absolutely fascinating read.'
Paul Binding in the Independent: 'a novel of great brilliance and subtlety.'
Catherine Taylor in the Guardian: 'this unusual, memorable novel.'
Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times: 'you want everyone to share the pleasure.'

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