20 books of summer, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Gerbrand Bakker, literary fiction, Netherlands, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Twin’ by Gerbrand Bakker

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 345 pages; 2008. Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer.

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker is a quietly understated novel that brims with a slow-moving rage and a gentle, long-lived grief. It’s a story about loss, resentment and thwarted opportunities and examines what happens to people who — for whatever reason — don’t take things into their own hands, letting circumstances and family obligations dominate their lives.

A farmer’s lot

Told in the first person from the perspective of a 55-year-old farmer, Helmer Van Wonderen, nothing much seems to happen and yet a lifetime of hurt is encapsulated in this coolly observed tale.

It’s set in the Waterlands region of the Netherlands, where Helmer now runs the family farm — 20 sheep and a handful of milking cows — single-handedly. His aged father, with whom he has a difficult relationship, has been installed in a bedroom upstairs, seemingly locked away and treated like an unwelcome lodger.

The tension between father and son is long-running, stemming from the death of Helmer’s twin, Henk, more than 30 years ago. Henk was the favoured son. He was in love with a girl called Riet and was set to inherit the farm. But when he died in a car accident, Helmer had to put his university studies on hold and return home. He has remained there ever since.

I’ve been scared all my life. Scared of silence and darkness. I’ve also had trouble falling asleep all my life. I only need to hear one sound I can’t place and I’m wide awake.

Now, having never married nor had children, Helmer is reassessing his life, wondering how he has so little to show for all the years that have come to pass. He realises he is the last in the line of Van Wonderens and becomes sentimental by this fact.

Without a wife, without kids and with a decrepit father who’s never wasted a word on family in my presence, I never expected myself to get sentimental about my own flesh and blood. Is it the farm? Our farm? A collection of buildings, animals and land I didn’t want anything to do with, an entity that was forced on me, but gradually became part of me?

He’s becoming increasingly agitated with his father, telling his neighbour Ada that his dad is going senile and that’s why she can’t go upstairs to say hello to him. There are other disturbing behaviours that indicate Hemler has a cruel streak.

But he’s also a man who has dreams. When he finds out another neighbour has sold his farm and moved to Denmark, Helmer wonders why he can’t pursue that kind of path, too. He sells three sheep so he can buy a detailed map of Denmark, which he gets framed and hangs on his bedroom wall. Every night, before sleep, he stares at the map and says aloud three or more town names, almost like an affirmation that one day he will get to visit them for real.

His ennui is further shaken by news the local livestock dealer is retiring, quickly followed by the milk tank driver. Is it time for Helmer to do something different too?

A stranger calls

When Riet, newly widowed, gets in touch three decades after Henk’s death, Helmer is presented with an opportunity to have his life shaken up a little. Riet asks him whether her son, who is also named Henk, could come and stay awhile, perhaps working as a farmhand, to which he reluctantly agrees.

And when Henk arrives, a new side of Helmer is revealed, a more caring, fatherly side. But he’s also occasionally provoked into fits of violent anger, for Henk is selfish and lazy, prone to sleeping in, shirking responsibility and speaking his mind.

Henk is actually a kind of nephew, I think when I close the door to the stairs and see him standing there. He is pulling on his overalls, the ones with the crotch that rides up, the sleeves that are too short and the tear in one armpit. A half-nephew, a could-have-been-nephew, a nephew-in-law.

Their relationship, tender and confrontational by turn, shows Helmer he can connect with people if he so wishes. He doesn’t need to remain passive. He can take control of his own life, steer it in the direction he chooses, and that he can move on without his twin, who has cast such a long shadow over his entire adult life.

I’ve been doing things by halves for so long now. For so long I’ve had just half a body. No more shoulder to shoulder, no more chest to chest, no more taking each other’s presence for granted. Soon I’ll go and do the milking. Tomorrow morning I’ll milk again. And the rest of the week, of course, and next week. But it’s no longer enough. I don’t think I can go on hiding behind the cows and letting things happen. Like an idiot.

An unexpected delight

The Twin is an unexpected delight of a book.

Its slow-moving, gentle narrative, written in pared-back prose, combined with its rural setting, is highly reminiscent of the Irish fiction I love so much.

It presents an old-fashioned world dominated by closed-off men, the kind of men that might have a deep love of nature but can’t communicate with people or express emotion beyond pent-up anger. It’s confronting in places, deeply sorrowful in others, but there are also light-hearted scenes and funny moments, and it ends on a satisfying, hopeful note.

This is my 12th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it on Kindle on 10 March 2013 for £5.22. I actually think it was a book club choice but for whatever reason, I didn’t read the book or attend the discussion. Sometimes it does take me an AGE to read books on my TBR – this one only took 8 years!

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), BIPOC 2021, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Japan, Mieko Kawakami, Picador

‘Heaven’ by Mieko Kawakami

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 167 pages; 2021. Translated from the Japanese by Sam Brett and David Boyd. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Mieko Kawakami’s Heaven is a novella about the impact of bullying on a teenage boy and how his friendship with a girl suffering similar schoolyard abuse gives him the courage to keep on going.

It’s set in the early 1990s, before the advent of the internet, social media and smartphones (which would arguably make things worse or, at least, different), and presents a world that is both violent and nihilistic.

A secret alliance

Narrated by “Eyes”, a 14-year-old boy, who is ruthlessly bullied at school because he has a lazy eye, it charts his last tormented year at middle school before graduating to high school. His only friend is Kojima, a female classmate, who is dubbed “Hazmat” by the same bullies because she supposedly smells and has dirty hair.

Their friendship is a secret one because to admit their solidarity would only encourage the students who persecute them so shamelessly already. The pair communicate via notes and letters and meet in the stairwell when no one is looking. They even go on a train trip together, a journey that solidifies their alliance and helps them get to know each other outside of the classroom.

There’s not much of a plot. The storyline simply highlights how Eyes is treated by his fellow students and shows how he tries to rise above his situation by not fighting back, accepting their terrible treatment of him in silence and nursing his pain alone.

When he does build up the courage to confront one of his attackers, following a distressing scene in a school gymnasium (be warned, there are some violent scenes in this book – they’re not gratuitous, but they are confronting), he’s essentially gaslit into thinking he’s got it all wrong.

“You said we do it for no reason, right? I agree with that, but so what? What’s wrong with that? I mean, if you want us to leave you alone, you’re totally free to want that. But I’m totally free to ignore what you want. That’s where things don’t add up. You’re mad that the world doesn’t treat you like you want to be treated, right? Like, right now is a good example. You can walk up to me and say you want to talk, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen. Know what I mean?”
I replayed in my head what Momose had just said and looked at his hands.
“More than that, though,” he said. “I got to tell you. This whole thing about you looking the way you look. You make it sound like that’s why we act the way we do, but that’s got nothing to do with it.”

Eventually, even his friendship with Kojima begins to flounder when he realises that she’s not there to support him to escape the bullies but to merely comfort herself by the idea she’s not suffering alone.

Bullying behaviour

This Japanese novella, expertly translated by Sam Brett and David Boyd, is a good examination of bullying behaviour — why people do it, how they get away with it and the long-term serious repercussions on those who suffer it.

There’s an alarming absence of adult intervention, whether by parent or teacher, which is probably indicative of a problem that can go undetected for a long time if the perpetrators are careful and the victim is too scared to speak up.

Heaven is profound and disturbing, but it’s also melancholy, intimate and tender, and there’s something about the hypnotic prose style that gets under the skin and leaves a lasting impression.

And thankfully, despite all the violence and the terror, the story ends on a bittersweet, hopeful note…

This is my 8h book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I accepted this one for review because regular readers of this blog will know I am quite partial to Japanese fiction. I’d been quite keen to read Kawakami’s previous novel, ‘Breasts and Eggs’, now. This is also my 7th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Keigo Higashino, Little, Brown, Publisher, Setting

‘Newcomer’ by Keigo Higashino

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little Brown Book Group; 353 pages; 2018. Translated from the Japanese by Giles Murray.

Keigo Higashino is a Japanese crime writer who likes to spin his tales in a completely different way to most crime writers. He basically takes the rules of the genre, rips them up and throws them away — and then does things completely on his own terms.

Whodunnit with an unusual structure

Newcomer, which is set in Tokyo, is a whodunnit but the narrative is structured in an unusual way: each phase of the police investigation into the homicide of a 40-something woman is told as if it’s a standalone short story. With each new story, or chapter, we learn something new about the case as the list of suspects grows longer and longer.

The investigation is led by Detective Kyochiro Kaga, a sharp-minded, highly experienced policeman who has just been transferred to the Tokyo Police Department and who was first introduced to readers in Higashino’s previous novel Malice. (Newcomer is billed as book 2 in the Kyochiro Kaga series but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy this one.)

As his investigation into the murder of divorcee Mineko Mitsui proceeds, more and more potential suspects enter the fray to the point where you wonder whether he is ever going to be able to weed out the real culprit.

The evocative setting — the Nihonbashi area of Tokyo, which is dominated by family-run shops and all-night bars, and is, I believe, one of the original areas of the city — lends an olde-worlde charm to the tale as Kaga slowly but surely traces a series of items found in the dead woman’s home back to the shops in which they were purchased.

His logical and methodical inquiry eventually allows him to rule out several suspects, and the denouement comes in the form of a final chapter that reveals who did it, how they did it and why.

A bit of a plod

Regretfully, I didn’t find this book as exciting as previous Higashino novels I have read, and for the most part, I found it a little dull and plodding. I kept wondering how he was going to tie up all the loose ends, and by the time he did so, I’d become bored by the storyline. It definitely lacks tension.

But it’s an intriguing read in terms of characterisation, scene-setting and plotting. Higashino wields his pen carefully, giving us a rather charming, calm and sensible hero, who uses his brain and his wits to put all the clues together without fuss or agenda. In many ways, Kaga might be a little too nice to be a police detective!

Newcomer — the title refers to Kaga being the new man in the police department — is an unconventional mix of cosy crime and modern-day police procedural. It’s an unconventional mystery full of red herrings, subtle reveals and a suspect list so long the book comes with a dramatis personae right upfront. It might be for you if you’re a crime reader looking for something a little on the unusual side.

This is my 2nd book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it on Kindle on 7 February 2021.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Henning Mankell, Maclehose Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Sweden, TBR 21

‘The Rock Blaster’ by Henning Mankell

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 2020. Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding.

Before Swedish author Henning Mankell became a crime fiction superstar he penned this quietly devastating novel first published in 1973 but only recently translated into English.

The Rock Blaster tells the story of a young man, Oskar Johansson, who is seriously injured in an industrial accident blasting rock with dynamite to make way for a road. He’s not expected to survive — indeed, the local newspaper reports him dead — but he defies the odds, albeit losing an eye and a hand, and manages to return to work as an invalid after he has recuperated.

A working-class hero

The novel charts Oskar’s life from the time of the accident, in 1911, to his death as an old man in 1969. A second thread, which is interleaved throughout, charts the sociological and political changes that occur during Oskar’s lifetime to build up a mesmerising portrait of one man and his place in history.

The story of Oskar is like an iceberg. What you see is only a small part. Most of it is hidden under the surface. That is where the bulk of the ice is, keeping its balance in the water and making its speed and course steady.

Oskar’s life story details his romance with a local girl before the accident to his marriage to that girl’s sister after the accident. Children are born. Jobs are held. Political parties are joined. Activism ensues. There are ups and downs, deprivations and small joys. Grief. Loss. Retirement. Solitude.

His experiences are presented as a series of flashbacks, interviews with an unnamed narrator and other fragments, and it is written in gentle, hypnotic prose, with nary a word wasted.

In early April in 1949, Oskar buys a propaganda poster¹. It is one of the most famous ones, the most widely disseminated and translated, but above all perhaps the most effective graphic analysis of the capitalist system ever published. It is the well-known pyramid, which was first printed in the USA in about 1910.

Fuelled by a sense of social justice and moral outrage, The Rock Blaster rails against capitalism and the ways in which the system uses the working classes to prop up the entire economic edifice of mid-20th century society.

Fight for a cause

I adored this novel. There’s something sublimely honourable about it. I loved the way it puts the working class centre stage and highlights how it is up to every single one of us to fight for what we believe in, to speak up against wrongs and to forge our own path in life. It tapped into my own sense of social justice and made me angry on Oskar’s behalf.

I’m so glad it finally got translated into English — even after all this time (47 years!) so much of this novel is relevant today.

1. You can view that poster on Wikipedia

This is my 18th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book store in August 2020.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Marta Orriols, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Reading Projects, Setting, Spain, TBR 21

‘Learning to Talk to Plants’ by Marta Orriols

Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 251 pages; 2020. Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.

Marta Orriols’ Learning to Talk to Plants is an age-old story about a woman grieving the untimely death of her long-time partner, only there’s a crucial twist — just hours before he dies in a cycling accident, he announces that he is leaving her for someone else.

Paula, the central character, is a neonatologist, a doctor who specialises in the care of newborn babies, particularly those who are ill or born prematurely. She works in a busy hospital in Barcelona and spends more time with her colleagues than her partner, Mauro, who works in book publishing.

She is unaware that Mauro is pursuing an affair, so his admission, at a carefully arranged dinner, is a shock. That shock is only superseded when he is killed cycling home just a few hours later. Her grief is compounded by the fact that she keeps Mauro’s desertion to herself; to tell family that he had left her would only tarnish their well-held opinion of him — and she refuses to do that.

The novel charts the ways in which 40-something Paula tries to make sense of her new reality. She throws herself into work, pursues a love affair with a beguiling stranger she met in Amsterdam, and grows closer to her beloved father who raised her singlehandedly after the untimely death of her mother.

But as she navigates this new existence, she is plagued by thoughts of Mauro. Why did he find it necessary to seek love elsewhere? And who was the woman that captured his heart?

Prize-winning novel

This intelligent and introspective novel won the Omnium Cultural Prize for Best Catalan novel in 2018 and was translated into English last year.

I found it a little uneven in terms of pacing, and the style is similarly patchy, with some elements written in eloquent, deeply thoughtful prose and others reading like a (high-brow) romance novel.

But the story is a good twist on the “grief novel” — one largely focused on a character coming to terms with the death of a loved one — and explores all kinds of issues, including love, trust, betrayal and loyalty. It’s also a story about family and how we are shaped by our childhood experiences.

And it’s full of metaphors — the babies that Paula saves at work, for instance, not only add meaning to her life, they represent all the children she, herself, never got to have with Mauro. Similarly, when all the plants that Mauro grew begin to die, she does her utmost to rescue them, because they are the last living link with the man she never really knew.

Learning to Talk to Plants is an honest portrayal of grief and charts some dark moments. But it’s also blackly humorous in places and never suffocates under its own melancholic sense of sadness. There’s plenty of rage here too — at the injustice of being “widowed” when all you want to do is kill the man who’s left you!

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Here is the Beehive’ by Sarah Crossan: A fast-paced novel written from the perspective of the other woman whose lover dies after a three-year illicit relationship.

This is my 14th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book shop when it was published last year mainly because I am interested in reading more Catalan fiction.