Review: The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker

The Twin Book Cover The Twin [2006/2008] – ★★★★

The Twin, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, is that type of a book which should not work, but somehow it does. It should not work because it is too introspective and has the drama and suspense which are way too subtle. In this book, Helmer van Wonderen is a fifty-seven year old man who is living on an isolated farm in the Netherlands, carrying for his aging father. His identical twin brother Henk, a farmer, died many years before, forcing Helmer to return home to work as a farm hand, helping his father. When his brother’s ex fiancée Riet arrives to the area, bringing her unruly son with her (who is also named Henk), Helmer is forced to confront his painful past, as well as his choices in life. The Twin may be a very “slow” novel, but where it lacks in pace, it makes up for in atmosphere and landscape descriptions. It also has barely perceivable emotional resonance that can be felt in the main character’s words and actions. 

It is difficult to write a review of this book because, on the one hand, the story is often tedious and monotone, and there is not much happening, but, on the other hand, the story also sends out important messages and generates feelings. One “gets” this book, but one may not quite put a finger on what makes this book so good. Gerbrand Bakker, the author, is actually a trained gardener by profession, and, in his novel, he includes descriptions of the Dutch countryside, emphasising birds (crows, gulls) and animals (cows, donkeys) movements to invoke special atmosphere where the monotony of farm life is only transformed with changing seasons (swimming in summer and skating in winter), and interrupted by the narrator’s own thoughts and willingness to make small changes around the house. The environment around the farm dictates the mood of the story, and the hooded crow in particular becomes a symbol of something unnatural and dark which may be descending on the family. There is barely perceivable suspense, barely perceivable drama and barely perceivable trauma felt in this novel, but the subtlety is what makes the story so readable and eerily beautiful.

The story moves forward slowly and we follow lonely Helmer, the farmer and prime carer of his father, on his daily activities. Helmer describes his actions around the house, and his interactions with his father and his neighbour Ada. As he is someone who spends his days doing the same activities, he must crave change. Therefore, Helmer decides to re-decorate the house, change the rooms, buy new beds and hang new paintings on walls. It would have been a novel about nothing if we also did not feel the barely perceivable feelings beneath Helmer’s actions and matter-of-fact, apathetic attitude. We got to know more about his past, his close relationship with his twin brother, and also about the death of his twin brother in a car accident when he was eighteen years old. His brother Henk was more popular than him, and Henk was also the favourite of the father, as well as the first one who got romantically successful with a girl – Riet, who was left devastated after Henk’s death.

So, when a woman Helmer has not seen in almost thirty years, Riet, an ex-fiancée of his late brother, sends Helmer a letter, telling about her arrival with her son named Henk, the past comes flooding back for Helmer. With Riet’s letter also emerge previously suppressed feelings of jealousy, frustration and regret. “What if” questions are subconsciously asked, as Helmer is forced to relive in his mind the consequences of his brother’s unexpected death thirty years previously. Despite Helmer’s implicit acceptance of his circumstances, we also feel that a lot is going on beneath the surface, inside him. For example, when Helmer interacts with his two neighbouring boys, they undoubtedly remind him of his own close relationship with his brother when they were children playing together.   

Bakker also deals with the nature and consequences of twinship in his book. Every identical twin has a kind of an identity crisis at some moment in his or her life whether he or she admits to it or not, and the book deals with that issue as well as asks “what is it like to have a relationship with a twin?” [Bakker, 2006/08: 86]. Helmer might have felt jealousy when his twin was alive (Henk was definitely more popular), and we also sense that there was an obvious competition between the two when they were young. Twins are inevitably compared to each other and there is a psychological competition between them to become more successful, even if they share a close bond and are proud of each other. Since they look similar, any differences between them, such as life paths they take and their outlooks on life are amplified and commented upon. Helmer and Henk shared a relationship which only they could understand by virtue of being twins, and there is a feeling that Helmer could not quite come to terms with the break from his brother, seeking substitutes. The first couple of pages of The Twin actually reminded me of the first chapter in Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees [2013], because both stories showed difficult familial situations involving a mother, a father and their children – twin brothers.

The Twin is a strange debut which is at times painfully slow, but it is also evocative and beautifully-written. There are many observations inside on the nature of living in the countryside, loneliness, regret, aging, lost chances in life and twinship. The ideas are understood and sensations felt, but remain uncertainly conveyed, as though the narrator does not want to show the true extent of his quiet desperation. He would rather show us the beauty of the countryside and describe his daily activities on the farm than state frankly his feelings about the past events and his deeply-buried resentment. There is definitely something special about The Twin, although it is true that the readers must go slightly out of their way to find it.

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