The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

This review comes two days after its promised publication and there is a reason for that. I was about one-third of the way into The Twin when I put up the promise — I did not realize then that this is a book that absolutely demands that readers put it down and contemplate it for a while along the way before resuming reading. For me, it was worth the wait. I am not sure that every reader would feel the same.

The singular “twin” of the title of this book is important. Helmer is the surviving twin; the other twin, Henk, died some decades ago. That event has left an indelible impact on Helmer, the survivor. The book is an exploration of what that separation has produced.

The book opens with Helmer, now 55, moving his own father upstairs in the family home, a powerful indication that this book will be about endings in many different forms:

It’s raining and a strong wind has blown the last leaves off the ash. November is no longer quiet with a fresh chill in the air. My parents’ bedroom is my room now. I’ve painted the walls and ceiling white and given the hardboard sheets a second coat of primer. I’ve moved the chairs, Mother’s dressing table and the bedside cabinets upstairs. I put one bedside cabinet next to Father’s bed and stowed the rest in the spare room next to his bedroom: Henk’s room.

That quotation comes from early in the book and does an excellent job of framing the story. Helmer is an aging man whose father is dying and he is trying to cope with that. But even more he is being reminded that he needs to cope with his past.

And the most critical part of that past is his twin, Henk. Helmer and Henk were like one until an evening in the pub when a meeting with Riet showed that they were two different people. Henk and Riet planned to be married (which meant isolation for Helmer) but a tragic driving accident led to Henk’s death — and Helmer has been living with it ever since.

Henk and I were born in 1947; I’m a few minutes older. At first they thought we wouldn’t live to see the next day (24 May), but Mother never doubted us. ‘Women are made for twins,’ is what she supposedly said after putting us on the breast for the first time. I don’t believe it: statements like that always emerge from a mass of events and comments finally remain as a sole survivor. Plenty of other things must have been said at the time and this was most likely a variation on something Father or the doctor said. Mother probably didn’t say much at all.

There are other elements at play in The Twin but I think that pretty much sums up the book: an aging, very lonely Dutch farmer (who really didn’t want to be a farmer, but his twin died) is contemplating how to face the last couple decades of his existence.

For this reader, Bakker delivered on this slender premise in exceptional form. The story is told in the first person and there is not a lot of action: the book is a mix of looking back and describing current circumstances. The structure demands some stretches where the author has to be granted licence (and I won’t spoil the review by revealing them here) — I was willing to grant them, but I am certainly not going to quarrel with those who don’t.

The Twin is an intensely introspective novel that will not be to everyone’s taste. And the shortness of this review is a reflection of that — this is an excellent book, but the more that I attempt to describe it, the worse I make it for future readers. If you read and liked Out Stealing Horses, a previous IMPAC winner, I suspect you will like this book. If you hated that novel (and some people certainly did), this is not one to waste your time on. I thought it was very successful and the fact that I delayed completing reading it by several days is even more important than anything that I could write about it. There are very few books that explore interpersonal relationships (especially male) as well as this one does.

(You might also want to check Trevor’s review here — while he shares my view of tone and mood, he does go into more detail on some of the elements of the plot.)

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10 Responses to “The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker”

  1. Trevor Says:

    So glad you liked this one, Kevin. I thought you would, but as you note above, this book has some elements that just might not appeal, understandably. I too stopped reading it and let it sit for a bit — which I don’t do too often. In the end, I really valued this book, and I still think it was a stronger contender for the Three Percent Best Translated Fiction Award than the eventual winner. Speaking of which, I think you might also like The Tanners, the other one I thought should have won that award.

  2. Lisa Hill Says:

    One for my wish list, thank you Kevin:)
    I loved the reflective tone in Out Stealing Horses too.
    Lisa

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I have The Tanners marked down for the future, but I am a bit swamped right now. Also, thanks for the reminder that you had reviewed this book — I have updated the post with a link to your review.
    Lisa: If you felt that way about Out Stealing Horses, I think you would like this book a lot. While it calls for some reader patience, it provides a return.

  4. Lisa Hill Says:

    I succumbed, Kevin, and ordered it last night.
    About two seconds after writing the comment above LOL.
    Lisa

  5. leroyhunter Says:

    Just finished this Kevin, you’re right – it needs time to stew. I didn’t have the reading break you describe, but I did have a false start which I think drew me more tightly into the book at the 2nd attempt.

    “Introspective”…comparison to the Petterson (which I didn’t enjoy nearly as much, incidentally)…all totally apt.

    I’d love more discussion of those “stretches” you mention, but spoilers are to be avoided. Maybe in due course…?

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: There is so much sadness to this book (and I don’t mean that as a negative) that it does require contemplation time to appreciate it. And I must say that those “stretches” I mentioned diminish in importance with time — the author does need some licence (mainly around coincidences) to make his plot work but it does not get in the way of the novel. This is definitely a book that is improving with memory, always a good sign.

  7. leroyhunter Says:

    Well, yes, coincidence…there is one whopper of course, which I must admit I didn’t notice as such until thinking about it now.

    I read an interesting piece today where Bakker described how dissatisfied he was with the original last line of the book, and how he rewrote the final couple of pages significantly to get him the final sentence he wanted. It wasn’t wasted work.

  8. Crake Says:

    This book was a truly enjoyable read for me. I was taken with it from the first page. You’re right, Kevin, this is the sort of novel that improves with memory.

    BTW, it seems that ‘It’s quiet upstairs’ would have been a more faithful translation of the title.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Crake: I am finding that it is a book that grows with memory, always a good sign. And I fully agree that that title would have been more approrpriate — probably some parenting book has already copyrighted it. :-)

  10. New books on the TBR « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog Says:

    […] by Chris Womersley and The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker.   I discovered The Twin from a review by Kevin from Canada and the others from Scribe’s September newsletter which I didn’t get round to reading […]

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