When you’re reading lots of books from different countries, stories from contrasting backgrounds can often seem to be talking to each other across the globe. Soon after finishing Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s The Sickness, with its memorable description a doctor’s struggle to accept his father’s terminal illness, I began Gerbrand Bakker’s International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award-winning The Twin. The novel was recommended by Dutch literature translator Michele Hutchison, who lives in Amsterdam, and it showed me a startlingly different filial response to a parent’s approaching death.
Having lived and worked on the family farm all his life, late-middle-aged Helmer finds that his father’s illness is the catalyst he needs to stop ‘hiding behind the cows and letting things happen’. With the power dynamics in their relationship turned upside down, he begins to exert control over the house and business. But when his dead twin brother Henk’s former fiancée and her uncannily named son Henk get in touch, Helmer is forced to confront his emotional stuntedness and the toll his narrow existence has taken on his ability to function in society.
Bakker’s writing is extraordinarily good, complemented, no doubt, by David Colmer’s excellent translation. Where most books confined to such a small number of locations and incidents feel static and wooden, this one throbs with a quiet fury that imbues even the smallest of actions with significance. We watch Helmer select his new bed, paint the living room and buy an antique map in the local town, feeling behind each deed the weight of decades of unexpressed anger, loss and grief.
Bakker heightens this sense of reticence through his spare style, which enables him to capture and express powerful impressions in very few words. This, coupled with his deft deployment of descriptions of the natural world to reveal the extent of Helmer’s isolation, enable him to walk the delicate line between his protagonist’s disturbing and often deliberately cruel treatment of his father and the slow unfolding of his blighted life.
In addition, the narrative’s strange beauty and the humour that gusts up suddenly to catch you unawares enable it to meander through profound themes without any pretentiousness. Its subtle exploration of what it means to be a twin and the sad echoes of the breezy predictions people make to adolescents about what life has in store for them will stay with me for a long time. Marvellous.
The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (Vintage, 2009)