The Twin, Gerbrand Bakker, Archipelago Books, 2009, 343 pp (originally published by Cossee, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2006; translated from The Dutch by David Colmer.)
The Twin won the 2010 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. I have had it on my shelf of unread Archipelago translated books for eleven years, never suspecting that it is an almost perfect novel. Sometimes books find me at just the right time though.
The eponymous twin is Helmer, a late middle aged man who lost his twin brother at age 18. They were as close as twins often are but their father favored the other boy. Henk had been engaged to be married, he had intended to carry on there at the family farm. Helmer had been at university but was obliged to return home and take over his brother's duties.
The novel opens as Helmer is moving his aged father to an upstairs bedroom. His mother has been dead for a decade. As Helmer moves through his DIY renovation of the first floor, through his daily routine of farm drudgery, it becomes clear that he has pretty well lost himself through the years he was forced to be Henk. He could have said no, I'm going back to university, but he did not.
The story of a man looking back on his life has been one I have read in many novels and memoirs. Rarely have I read it done so well. Perhaps that has something to do with the setting, of dikes and rivers and lakes and marshy ground, all rendered with exceptional skill.
Also, and most wonderful, is how Gerbrand Bakker packed so much life, loss, beauty and wry humor into his pages. By the end I felt I had known Helmer, his family and neighbors, the years as they passed, as well as if I had been there with them. Though the novel is a painting in words about loneliness as a chronic condition, I did not close the book feeling sad, depressed or sorry about anything.
I did want to get on a plane and go to The Netherlands. No other book I have read set in that country has given me that urge.