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Review: Fiction

Twinning the past Add to ...

There are certain stories that both ask for and reward rereading, and not according to the Great Work of Art notion that demanding, ambitious works like Ulysses and Hamlet sustain multiple engagements over a lifetime. I mean instead that more modest, deceptively simple works tend to reveal their many smaller gems of wisdom and beauty on second, third and even 20th readings. Marilynne Robinson's Gilead - her luminous novel about an old Kansas preacher's relationship to his young son and to the changing world around them - and Ernest Hemingway's Big Two-Hearted River - a pitch-perfect short story about a damaged young man's effort at a restorative fishing trip in northern Michigan - come to mind.

Gerbrand Bakker's debut novel, The Twin, while not as accomplished as either of these works, has a similar feel to it. The winner of the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is unapologetically slow-paced, patient in its revelations, almost ritualistic in its descriptions of quotidian things, melancholic and meditative in its narrative voice and capable, at its best moments, of bringing off remarkably moving and tense passages concerning a middle-aged Dutchman's fraught relationship to his aged father, a relationship permanently and tragically forged in fracture by the accidental death of the Dutchman's twin brother - the always preferred son - when they were teenagers.





Forty years later, Helmer remains in place, or more precisely in his brother's place, on the modest and declining family farm, bitter that his own ambitions for life have been, for decades, shunted. Against his will, he oversees their few holdings - some sheep, milking cows and a pair of donkeys - while also caring for his increasingly infirm father, his mother having died a while earlier.

The story's initial impetus comes from Helmer's effort to make some changes to his otherwise paralyzed life, changes that involve renovating the gloomy and decrepit family home and, literally and emotionally, trying to pack away his father. He moves the old man into an unused bedroom and, in so doing, makes his ongoing hostility to his father casually clear: "Despite the new room and the clean sheets and the pillowcases, it smelt musty, he smelt musty and mouldy. … 'Get the doctor,' Father said. 'No,' I replied, turning to walk out of the room."

Bakker chooses an inductive method of storytelling, which means it takes many pages for us to understand the particular reasons behind Helmer's open ill-will toward his fragile, seemingly senile father. In the meantime, we also discover Helmer's own fragility, attested to by his penchant for investing small matters with existential weight, as when, for instance, he wonders, "Is it enough to have the paintwork in good condition and the roof tiles straight? The willows neatly pollarded and the donkeys warm and well fed in their shed?"

He tries to make such simple work enough, but a combination of bittersweet memories, unavoidable responsibilities to his father and unexpected incursions from the world frustrate his plans. These elements cohere around a woman named Riet, who was Helmer's brother's girlfriend at the time of his death (and who was, unintentionally, partly responsible for it). Many years after Helmer's father demanded that she break off relations with the grieving family, Riet contacts Helmer, desirous of reconnecting, if for unclear reasons. As these reasons begin to take shape, notably involving the recently widowed Riet's sending her wayward son to work on Helmer's farm (a son named, unbeknownst to her husband, after Helmer's brother), Bakker brings off a dizzying show of doubles and parallels among his characters and their present and past situations.

Despite the deceptive simplicity of the title, which provides the book's governing concept, none of these pairings is stable or straightforward. They inevitably give way to a series of triangular relationships that themselves replay earlier versions in partial ways. Though at times overdone and heavy-handed, this complex intertwining produces many of the novel's finer effects, perhaps most significantly with respect to questions of why Riet chose Helmer's twin brother over him years before, and what, if anything, will come of their meeting years later; of Helmer's sense of himself as a twin and how it will be affected by the arrival of a boy bearing his brother's name and about the same age his brother was when he died; and, most significantly, of whether decades of resentment and decline can be overcome by a home once again vital with two boys and their father.

Bakker denies us any easy resolutions, and rightly so: The accumulated past is too heavy a burden to be carried, let alone overcome, by new, temporary relationships, no matter the many and beguiling ways in which they echo, invoke and even twin that very past.

Randy Boyagoda is a professor of literature at Ryerson University and the author of Governor of the Northern Province, a novel.

 

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