Gerbrand Bakker’s novels have taken the Anglophone word by storm. The Twin (original Dutch publication 2006) won the IMPAC award in 2010; The Detour (original Dutch publication 2010) the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013. What will the world make of the recently translated June (original Dutch publication 2009)?
Firstly, it is typically Bakker – understated, detailed, focused on the everyday. A quiet novel then? With a dysfunctional family at its core – not really.
The main narrative is framed between the story of Queen Juliana’s visit to the northern provinces of Holland in 1969. The point-of-view is special, and possibly controversial,in that it is told from a very human and, at times, very irritated queen’s point-of-view. She is a momarch who is not afraid to deviate from her civil servant’s script and take a couple of extra minutes to talk to her subjects and stroke the cheek of a young child.
As the prologue ends, we discover that this event does not become a family highlight. An unbearable tragedy unfolds later that same day. We catch up with the family 35 years later and discover family members becoming progressively more eccentric as time passes, even as the burden of grief does not.
This does not make for an unremittingly bleak narrative. Personalities provide light relief. Well, at least, until it becomes obvious that the woman seeking me-time, lying in the straw swigging a bottle of advocaat, isn’t simply throwing an egocentric strop. She is a soul incapacitated by bitterness and grief; her husband and sons entirely incapable of dealing with her problems. Adult pressures and general unhappiness are counterpointed by the lightness of Dieke, the 5-year old grandchild, who skips around the ramshackle farm in the obliviousness and innocence of childhood.
In front of her is the shadow cast by the farmhouse, stretching almost to the sheep shed. One of the two doors is hanging crooked on its hinges. On one side of the sheep shed is the old dungheap , on the other a salt-stained, concrete silo. The dung left on the slab is as black as ink and teeming with fishing worms. There are elderberry bushes growing in the silo.
The physical state of the farm reflects the anguish of the family within.
The descriptive passages are as fine as any Bakker has written and his characters as real. Yet I didn’t connect with this novel as I did with the two previous. Perhaps the angles were too oblique? More likely, The Detour, being one of my favourites of all time, is too tough an act to follow.