Kim described this as “a quietly understated novel that brims with a slow-moving rage and a gentle, long-lived grief.” Nevertheless I decided to read it and from the first page I found it oddly comforting and calming. Set in the Netherlands, it is the story of a man in his mid-50s whose twin died as a young man, forcing Helmer to give up university and help his father with the farm. He has spent his life doing what his unpleasant father required, milking cows, caring for sheep, being alone. One unusual act is that he had two donkeys, useless animals, who perhaps reflected him and his brother and who seemed to be source of comfort.
Through the window I see the donkeys in the far corner of the donkey paddock. I put them out again early this morning. They’re always together, it’s only when walking or trotting around that they occasionally separate and then they’re so shocked they can’t wait to get back together again.
As the novel begins Helmer’s cruelty shows itself and then as book progresses he displays more kindly human interactions too. How is it possible that I found this novel calming and comforting? I’m not sure. The quiet tone of the author uses to recount mundane work Helmer does is part of it. He begins by clearing out a bedroom he will move into and tells of vacuuming, painting, moving furniture out that hadn’t moved in decades.
In the kitchen I make a cheese sandwich and wolf it down. I can hardly wait. With the water still dripping through the coffee maker, I go into the living room. I am alone, I’ll have to do it alone. I lift the sofa on to one of the rugs I used for the clock and drag it through the hall to the scullery. I carry the two armchairs out of the front door and set them at the side of the road. The rest goes in the scullery with the sofa.
And so on. After the house is changed, he recounts farm chores. Why this should be comforting escapes me. Another aspect of this book I loved is the specificity of location. I have not read a novel set in the Netherlands other than Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates as far as I know. So I loved looking at google maps for each location he mentions and imagining this new world. I was pleased to observe references to alienation between the north and the south of the country which are vaguely familiar to me. This farm is in the north in Waterland, north of Amsterdam. One character moves away when young to Brabant in the south and complains bitterly about the area: “Brabant is horrible. I don’t know if you’ve ever been here, but take it from me, it’s terrible. Nothing but pigs and sociable people, but their kind of sociable is nothing like what we used to have at home in North Holland.”
The book does end on quite a positive note and I am very grateful to have had this book in my life in the last week. I am thankful for book blogs.
Gerbrand Bakker, The Twin, Archipelago, 2010, 343 pages, orig. pub. 2008 (I read the kindle version).