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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Twin

Gerbrand Bakker

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To purchase The Twin

Title: The Twin
Author: Gerbrand Bakker
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 343 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: The Twin - US
The Twin - UK
The Twin - Canada
The Twin - India
Là-haut, tout est calme - France
Oben ist es still - Deutschland
C'è silenzio lassù - Italia
Todo está tranquilo arriba - España

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Our Assessment:

A- : odd, well-told tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 3/2/2009 Sabine Brandt
The Guardian . 17/5/2008 Catherine Taylor
The Guardian . 30/5/2009 Nicola Barr
The Independent A 30/5/2008 Paul Binding
The LA Times . 29/3/2009 Susan Salter Reynolds
NZZ . 13/11/2008 Dorothea Dieckmann
The NY Rev. of Books . 24/6/2010 Tim Parks
NRC Handelsblad . 28/6/2006 Pieter Steinz
TLS . 25/4/2008 Sandra Lauckner-Rothschild
Die Zeit A 22/1/2009 David Hugendick

  Review Consensus:

  Impressed, and appreciate his approach

  From the Reviews:
  • "Nichts taucht im Dasein des Romanhelden auf, was nicht ein paar Sätze später in Frage gestellt wird. Dabei ist er keineswegs ein Versager. Was er anfasst, gerät zwar nicht immer musterhaft. Doch hat er Erfolge, und die Ergebnisse seiner Mühen können sich sehen lassen. So erscheint es jedenfalls seiner Umwelt, er selber sieht sich und seine Leistungen freilich anders." - Sabine Brandt, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Loneliness, combined with the beauty of the landscape, creates an atmosphere of inchoate yearning." - Catherine Taylor, The Guardian

  • "But these men are so silent in the assessment of their own lives, and this is such a sad and bleak story, that no matter how delicate the touch and how subtle the undercurrents, it makes for a sad, bleak read." - Nicola Barr, The Guardian

  • "This is a novel of great brilliance and subtlety. It contains scenes of enveloping psychological force but is open-ended, its extraordinary last section suggesting that fulfilment of long-standing aspirations can arrive, unanticipated, in late middle-age. Human dramas are offset by landscape and animals feelingly delineated, and David Colmer's translation is distinguished by an exceptional (and crucial) ear for dialogue." - Paul Binding, The Independent

  • "Gerbrand Bakker's writing is fabulously clear, so clear that each sentence leaves a rippling wake." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Gerbrand Bakker nimmt sich so viel Zeit zum Erzählen, dass die Monotonie des Bauernlebens, in dem das Auftauchen des Viehhändlers oder des Milchfahrers Ereignisse sind, auf die Lektüre abfärbt. Im Wasser-, Polder- und Alltagsgrau blitzt der rote Faden des virulenten Dramas umso wirkungsvoller auf. Indem er das scheinbar Unbedeutende ausführlich, das scheinbar Bedeutsame dagegen mit lakonischer Beiläufigkeit schildert, macht der Autor die paradoxe Enge des gedehnten ländlichen Daseins ebenso kenntlich wie die Gestimmtheit der Landbewohner, die den Zumutungen der Existenz nur mit Fatalismus begegnen können." - Dorothea Dieckmann, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The charm of Bakker's book is how finely every element is balanced, how perfectly the story is paced." - Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books

  • "Toch is de schoonheid van Boven is het stil vooral gelegen in de stijl. Bakker schrijft natuurlijke, droogkomische dialogen en weet zonder omhaal van woorden perfect de sfeer van een schaatstocht op het meer, een ernstig gesprek aan de keukentafel of een wandeling door de wei op te roepen. Maar hij is ook goed in de nuchtere of filosofische oneliner die een pagina kan doen oplichten" - Pieter Steinz, NRC Handelsblad

  • "This is a quiet book, humble in tone, with a fine, self-deprecating humour. The characters Gerbrand Bakker brings to life are real -- as confused and lost as they are humane and quietly strong." - Sandra Lauckner-Rothschild, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Leben, Tod, Einsamkeit, verlorene Träume -- das wurde uns zigmal schon erzählt. Bakker tut es oft so frisch, so hin- und mitreißend, als habe er die Sujets gerade erst erfunden. Er erzählt uns diese Geschichte ergreifend und unzerknautscht. Ihm gelingt die Balance zwischen sentimentalen Episoden und lakonischem Witz. Die Dialoge funkeln in der Trübe der grau grundierten Landschaft." - David Hugendick, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The English translation of the title of Gerbrand Bakker's novel, The Twin, is appropriate enough, as the narrator Helmer van Wonderen is a twin, and his story is very much one of finding that other half of himself that he lost when his twin brother died more than three decades earlier -- but it misses the feel of the subtler, sinister Dutch title, Boven is het stil ('It's quiet upstairs').
       Helmer is in his mid-fifties when he begins his story, and he begins it by moving his invalid father from one room in the house to another. The novel opens:

     I've put father upstairs. I had to park him on a chair first to take the bed apart. He sat there like a calf that's just a couple of minutes old, before it's been licked clean: witha directionless, wobbly head and eyes that drift over things.
       His father is little more than an object to be stowed overhead and out of the way. One imagines that if he could have, Helmer would have put him in the attic. As is, he does his best to pretend that's pretty much what he's done, keeping his father isolated -- not letting the friendly neighbour who drops by look in on him, not calling the doctor to check up on him.
       Yes, Helmer has issues with his father -- and for some good reasons. Helmer had an identical twin brother, but even though they were indistinguishable they had different characters. Henk was always the more active one:
     It was -- looking back, always looking back -- as if he knew exactly what he wanted, while I never had a clue. About anything at all.
       Though Henk was the younger of the twins, he was also the one destined to follow in his father's footsteps and take over the farm (while Helmer went off to study literature at university), and he was clearly the favoured son: "Henk was Father's boy". Henk was also the one to get the girl, Riet -- but Riet got in a car accident and Henk was killed and that was that. After that the father took two steps -- and the mother didn't step in -- and it changed then-nineteen year-old Helmer's life: he told Helmer he was done in Amsterdam -- i.e. he had to come help on the farm -- and he sent Riet away, who lingered in the household after Henk's death.
       Abandoning his studies was a life-changing and defining event for Helmer . He accepted his father's decision -- and seems to have regretted it ever since. But he also realises that he wasn't ever a man who could stand up to his father.
       What's left is a lot of bitterness (that's always been internalised -- he doesn't seem to have ever complained much, just accepting his lot in life), and though Helmer isn't truly cruel to his now helpless father, he is very cold. Storing dad upstairs is one last attempt to make a life for himself, but he barely knows how; it's quiet upstairs, but that presence still hangs over Helmer .....
       He does go through some of the motions suggesting he's going to make a change. He buys a new bed for himself -- a double bed, with two pillows. There's his neighbour, Ada (whose husband somehow manages to always avoid going anywhere, in one of the small running gags in the novel, yet another failed male figure), and her two sons who like to come over and play -- a substitute family, almost, but more a reminder of what could and should have been. But on the whole, Helmer situation is pretty hopeless.
       Things change when he hears from Riet after all these years. She was married, and had some kids. She wants to come for a visit -- but only if Helmer's father is dead, as she hasn't forgiven him for what happened so many years earlier. In a wonderfully creepy scene she does come, after Helmer lied to her, and Helmer tells his father:
     "If I were you, I'd keep quiet," I said ominously. "Otherwise there's a chance she'll come upstairs."
     "What for ?"
       The recently widowed Riet has also not been able to let go of the past, either. And she asks Helmer for a favour: to take in her son for a while , since he doesn't seem to be getting anywhere in life. The boy is about the age Henk was when he died. And the boy's name is ... Henk.
       Helmer takes him in, and thus finds himself paired with an alter-Henk. The boy has a thing or two to teach him -- about wine, television -- but it's an odd relationship, too, and not sufficient to make Helmer whole. (Henk does, however, save Helmer's life in an accident reminiscent of the one that took Helmer's brother's life, one of many effective after-echoes Bakker has in the book.)
       The other figure that Helmer lost at about the same time as his brother was the farmhand, Jaap -- the man who could have taken the role on the farm Helmer was soon forced into, but who was let go when it was decided Henk would follow in his father's footsteps. Jaap was something of a father-figure, teaching Helmer to skate, for example, and showing him affection which his father never would; there were also elements of homoeroticism here, but as when Helmer crawled in bed with his brother -- or when the young Henk joins old Helmer in bed, complaining of the cold -- this pull to be together seems as much in the hopes of making oneself whole, rather than simply finding sexual pleasure or outlets.
       Helmer's quest is to somehow find that wholeness that he seems to have lost when his brother died, but there's no other half that can complete him: no wife, no woman (Ada and Riet both have their own issues -- with Ada's peering through her binoculars a beautiful way of emphasising the distance she ultimately keeps), no second Henk. Not even, ultimately, Jaap. As Helmer comes to realise: no matter what, "I am alone."
       Helmer's narrative is laconic. There's no raging and little emotion -- a bit of hysteria from the women, but little beyond that. The dialogues between Helmer and the various agricultural workers he deals with -- people he has known for decades, yet with whom he exchanges only a few words -- perfectly capture the prevailing attitudes, of closed-off lives, only occasionally opening ever so slightly up -- usually when it is too late. Similarly, Helmer's complicated relationship with his father is very well presented, its coldness not quite heartlessness, and even with a bit of surprising humour.
       The Twin is an odd tale of life on a Dutch farm, a way of life that's long been outmoded (indeed, there are few working farms in the area any more, and the government wants Helmer to sell out and give up in what has long been turned into a heritage area). "Nothing's changed here at all", Riet says when she visits for the first time in over thirty years, and that's part of Helmer's problem, that he has never been able to move on. He hopes with the decline of his father to be able to now, but in revealing his character so closely the novel also shows why he won't be able to.
       These characters aren't very sympathetic, and little happens; even major events -- Riet coming back into Helmer's life, her son Henk moving in with him -- seem almost incidental, as Helmer merely integrates them into the flow of his own staid life. Yet in Bakker's telling -- those simple descriptions and the terse dialogue, with all its lack of true communication -- it is an absolutely fascinating read. Well worthwhile.

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The Twin: Reviews: Other books by Gerbrand Bakker under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Gerbrand Bakker was born in 1962.

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© 2009-2021 the complete review

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