The Twin is the first novel by Gerbrand Bakker, beautifully translated from the original Dutch by David Colmer. Though rich in detail, it’s a sparely written story, with the narrator’s odd small cruelties, laconic humour and surprising tendernesses emerging through a steady, well-paced, unaffected style.
Helmer van Wonderen is a farmer. For forty years he’s lived a stalled, frustrated life, with every decision on the farm being made by his father. It wasn’t the life Helmer intended. Through childhood he was one half of twins – an entity he even thought of inwardly as ‘Henk and Helmer’. But Henk was killed at eighteen in a car driven by his girlfriend, Riet, who was then ordered away by the boys’ grieving father. Helmer was called home from university to take his brother’s place on the farm. And then the mother he loved died.
But now Helmer’s father, too, is dying, and the shift in power between the two of them sets off great changes. Helmer moves the old man upstairs. “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.” Is this indifference, coldness, or Helmer’s first chance at revenge for what has been an unlived life ‘with his head under a cow’? And perhaps also for his father’s own seemingly deliberate cruelties, both on the farm itself and to the son whom he could never love as much as the dead brother.
Into what seems set fair to be a stunning and compelling study of unlocked grief and frozen hate comes Riet’s wayward teenage son, sent by his exasperated mother to get an inkling of experience away from home. This cheerful lad (“How is the dying going, Mr Van Wonderen?”), with all his openness and shifting moods and frank demands, hastens the changes that Helmer has already starting making in the house, and stirs up more reminders of the past. Deftly, this poignant and astonishingly tender story opens up into an exhilarating account of how a man can come to understand himself for the first time. It is a tale of redemption.
The book convinces from first page to last. With quiet mastery the story draws in the reader. The writing is wonderful: restrained and clear, and studded with detail of farm rhythms in the cold, damp Dutch countryside. The author excels at dialogue, and Helmer’s inner story-telling voice also comes over perfectly as he begins to change everything around him. There are intriguing ambiguities, but no false notes. Nothing and no one is predictable, and yet we believe in them all: the regular tanker driver, the next door neighbour with her two bouncing children, and Jaap, the old farm labourer from the twins’ childhood who comes back to the farm in time for the last great upheaval, as Helmer finally takes charge of what is left of his own life.