In May 1947, the Van Wonderen twins were born to a farmer and his wife in north Holland, near the IJsselmeer. Though Helmer was the older by a few minutes, these "identical" twins were always known as Henk-and-Helmer, the younger exuding an indisputable superiority. From their earliest years, their father decided Henk must take over the farm, and Helmer stay at school and then go to university in Amsterdam.
Henk was always the popular one. So when the brothers, by now 18, encountered beautiful Riet in a local pub, it was Henk who immediately paired off with her, though Helmer was no less good-looking. Strain, hitherto foreign to their relationship, now entered it. Henk refused any longer to sleep beside Helmer, as had been their habit; bed was for Riet only.
On an April evening in 1967 Riet, a neophyte driver wanting to impress her boyfriend, takes the wheel of his father's Simca. She swerves; the car rolls off the road and down the dike into the IJsselmeer. Henk, unconscious and trapped in the wreckage, is drowned. His father's response is to banish Riet from his house. The bereft Helmer is told to abandon his studies, come home and help to run the farm. From now on, Helmer must be Henk.
Helmer is our narrator in Gerbrand Bakker's novel, both self-confronting and self-bemused. Aged 57, his mother dead, his father an invalid unable to manage basic functions without aid, he receives a letter from the Reit he has not seen for 30-odd years. She has a favour to ask. She has an unsatisfactory son of 18 doesn't get up in the morning, is listless and given to sudden disappearances. He might benefit from working alongside Helmer on the farm. This son is called Henk after the boy Riet once loved and involuntarily killed. Helmer, with some reluctance, accedes. The relationship between Helmer and the youth bearing his twin's name occupies, with its many ebbs and flows, a central place in the narrative. Yet there is much else to contend with: the past with its tragedy and disappointments, the present with its daily demands (Helmer is now a dedicated farmer caring for his livestock) and a future in which his long-resented father will die.
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.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies