Helmer van Wonderen was a young man studying at university when his twin brother Henk was killed in a car accident. Family obligations came first and Helmer left school to return to the home he grew up in and take over his brother's role on the small family farm.
Thirty years later, Helmer is still a single man working on the farm. His mother has passed away and he has moved his invalid father to a room upstairs to keep him out of the way. But when Henk's ex-girlfriend Riet reappears after decades away, Helmer's solitary life is interrupted. She asks if her eighteen-year-old son, also named Henk, can come and live on the farm for a while and it is his arrival that brings the past back to the forefront of Helmer's life.
The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker, is a simple and subtle novel about rural life and family dynamics. The winner of the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, it's an interesting look at the relationship between a middle-aged man and his father, forever shaped and haunted by the death of his twin brother, the one his father preferred.
This is the second book by Bakker I have read, the first being The Detour. I was kind of in the middle with it, not sure why I liked it, not sure what was keeping me from being excited about it. I kind of feel the same way about The Twin. In the beginning I wasn't sure I liked it, yet I just had to keep reading it. For me this points to the skill of Bakker's writing, that what comes across as simple or mundane continues to keep your interest. Throughout the book, the man that Helmer is slowly unfolds and as more of him becomes apparent, the more interested you are.
Typically, I enjoy books like this. I often don't mind ones that unfold slowly so long as I'm given little bits of information as I go. But often with those kind of books, I experience much more at the end. I'm not talking a big twist or anything like that, I just like for situations to be resolved, things to be explained. And upon finishing this book I didn't feel fully satisfied. I just found myself wondering what I'm supposed to be drawing from the story of Helmer, other than the little sadness I felt for him.
This is one of those books that, I think, is written in a style that is for some people and not for others. That doesn't make it good or bad, it could also just depend on your mood when reading it. This one is more about the character and his struggles and much less about the plot. Simple and subtle, not necessarily a bad thing, it just depends on what you're expecting.