‘What is the signifiance of the donkeys in your novel?’
With the sigh of an author who’s fielded this and other similar questions many, many times, Gerbrand Bakker gamely replied to his Edinburgh festival inquisitor, ‘If you want the donkeys to be symbolic, that’s fine with me’.
It is with trepidation, therefore, that one approaches the task of reviewing this poignant debut novel, but Bakker’s answer, for all its world-weariness, sums up what the reader can expect from The Twin. Depending on how you read it, it is an evocation of the north European landscape of lowland peaty fields and drainage ditches cowering beneath huge skies; it is the tale of a man forced to live a life he never envisaged for himself in the wake of his twin’s fatal car crash; it is a meditation on familial resentment, lost opportunities and death. The Twin can be all of these things.
Helmer is a gruff man in his fifties. He milks the cows and looks after a few chickens and those donkeys. He also has to care for his elderly and infirm father, for whom he bears an ill-concealed and long-burning resentment: thirty years ago, Helmer’s father forced him to leave his university course when Henk, his twin brother, was killed in a car crash (his fiancee, who was driving, survived).
This has rankled ever since, to the extent that Helmer decides one day to move his father out of his downstairs bedroom into a musty alternative upstairs. Helmer displays a shocking, almost casual, kind of cruelty, ignoring his father’s pleas and even lying to his inquisitive neighbour about the old man’s mental health.
It takes the unexpected reappearance of Henk’s fiancee, Riet, to knock Helmer out of this rut. Banished from the farm forever by the twins’ father after Henk’s death, Riet moved away, married and had a son. Years later, she writes to Helmer, asking if she can visit. He agrees, but lies to her that his father has died. After this visit, she asks if her teenage son (Henk) can come to the farm; she doesn’t know what to do with him and thinks a stint of farmwork might help.
Henk’s brooding, grumpy presence shakes up Helmer and brings about a subtle change in his relationship with his father. For decades Helmer’s method of self-preservation has been to shut himself down by not thinking too much, but Riet’s son stirs in him memories and frustrations. Meanwhile, around him, the cows need milking every day and the seasons inevitably but erratically change.
Bakker’s paean to the Dutch countryside is beautifully understated, as is his portrayal of the characters. A sense of turmoil bubbling under a skein of stillness applies to Helmer and to the landscape around him (much like Anne Ragde’s Norwegian novel Berlin Poplars, which is also set on an isolated farm). In this respect, the literal translation of the book’s Dutch title It’s Quiet Upstairs (Boven is het stil) seems better able to convey the subdued but beating heart of this quietly profound novel.
Reviewed by James Smith, Booktrust website editor