One day, thinking that he is asleep, Helmer van Wonderen tells his bedridden father the truth about how he feels: “I can’t stand you because you have ruined my life. I don’t call a doctor because I think it is high time you stopped ruining my life, and I tell Ada you’re senile because it makes things that much easier. If you’re senile, then none of it makes any difference anyway.”
Helmer, the narrator of Gerbrand Bakker’s exquisite debut novel The Twin, had to struggle all his life for recognition. He feels one with his identical twins brother Henk. The two boys grow up on a farm in Holland in the fifties and sixties under the strict, often cruel, rule of their father, and surrounded by the ever sympathising but helpless love of their mother. Although Helmer is older by a few minutes, his father chooses Henk to take over the farm and ostentatiously favours the younger brother. Helmer quietly accepts the imposed hierarchy, and when he is old enough decides to study Dutch philology at the University in nearby Amsterdam. He finds an unexpected ally in the farmhand, Jaap.
When Henk falls in love with the beautiful Riet, Helmer feels halved. His brother’s relationship and impending marriage reinforce his outsider position. Because Henk and Riet are destined to take over the farm, Jaap is told to find another job. Then a tragic accident shatters all their lives. Henk dies, leaving behind a devastated fiancée and family, but most of all his twin Helmer who for the rest of his life tries to find a wholeness which seems irrevocably lost through his brother’s absence. Henk’s death has another crushing consequence. After the funeral, without consulting him, Helmer’s father decides that his son is “done there in Amsterdam.” He also tells Riet to leave the farm and never to return since she was driving the car in which Henk died.
Helmer returns home to take over his brother’s place at his father’s side attending to the farm: “After Henk died Father had to make do with me, but in his eyes I always remained second choice.” For the next thirty years Helmer dutifully follows his father’s orders. His mother dies of a heart attack and the two embittered men are left alone on the farm. When the father’s health begins to fail him, Helmer gradually takes over the farm and the house. He decides to swap bedrooms with his father and redecorates most of their home. He grudgingly tends to his bedridden parent, but his reluctant care is torture to both of them. An ominous hooded crow watches over their lives.
They are visited by the neighbour’s wife, Ada, and her two small sons who come to play with Helmer’s donkeys, the only animals on the farm he really cares about. Every night before going to bed, Helmer recites the names of Danish villages and towns he traces on the map hanging on his wall. Going away is not his only secret wish he keeps hidden from the world.
Out of the blue, Helmer receives a letter from Riet who asks him to take on her son as a farmhand. First her and then the young man’s arrival on the farm upset the carefully balanced order of the place and forces Helmer to confront some truths about himself he has been avoiding all his life.
The Twin is a haunting book about making choices and the consequences of what happens when we think that we are left with none. It is also a superb study of the often destructive need to avenge the wrongs we feel, rightly or wrongly, others have committed against us.
The Twin was published originally in Dutch two years ago under the title Boven is het stil (Upstairs It Is Quiet) and was sensitively translated by David Colmer into English. It is upstairs in the farmhouse where Helmer sequesters his father and where Riet’s son moves into a room. Helmer remains downstairs, listening to the noises the two men make, hoping that the former will die and the latter leave. However, with silence comes not only solace, but also loss.
Gerbrand Bakker’s prose is powerful in its quietness. He captures with compassion the rhythms of his characters’ lives set in rural Holland at the end of the twentieth century. The Twin moves easily between Helmer’s past and present, illuminating with immaculate skill the strained relationships of his life. Bakker allows the reason for Helmer’s solitude to dawn on us slowly and in the process draws the reader into his world. Turning the last page leaves one achingly deprived, longing for more.