- Winner of the 2021 Vondel Prize
- Translated from Dutch by David Doherty (Meet the translator here)
The reactions of other readers can sometimes be surprising. Jaap Robben has reported that some women think his character, Maurice, a lovable rogue. Well he didn’t strike me as lovable at all, and I’d call him a chancer. He is also an ugly drunk. Yet thinking of the author’s sentiments “there’s got to be something about my characters to like, else I cannot write them”, I have to accept that Maurice didn’t abandon his younger son, Bryan, when his ex-wife disappeared into the sunset with a new man. Still you have to feel sorry for Bryan (13), being brought up in a dilapidated trailer on a scrapyard by an uncaring father who is constantly on the make, short of cash and, just a hair’s breadth from eviction.
Brian’s older brother, Lucien (16) is severely mentally and physically disabled. He lives in a home, which is about to be renovated. When Maurice is offered a generous allowance to take Lucien for the summer, he manages to avoid the home inspection, and Lucien is duly transferred into his care. Except he delegates this to Bryan … after all, he has to go out and “seek work” every day. This is, of course, criminal negligence.
At the age of 13, children are capable of shouldering great responsibilities and rising to the challenge. Bryan, who truly cares for his brother, does his best, at times finding inventive solutions to the problems at hand. It is touching to see how he learns to communicate with Lucien and the bond that gradually develops between them. Yet sometimes the physical challenges are too much (Lucien is much bigger and stronger, especially when taken off the medications that control him.) 13 year olds are also capable of making terrible decisions, and when Brian decides to leave Lucien alone to visit Selma, a institutionalised 19-year old with the mind of a child, disaster is inevitable. Actually it is avoided only for as long as it is because Brian gets help from Émile, recently separated from his wife, who moves into the trailer next door. Émile has his secrets – I’m not sure exactly what they are – but it seems Maurice does and is not adverse to resorting to blackmail.
There is constant tension in the narrative: will Maurice’s landlords eventually evict him (not just for non-payment of rent, but also for bringing Lucien to stay), why is Maurice so antagonistic towards Émile, and how will the inevitable disaster come to pass? Just how badly is this going to end?
There were some sections that I wish Robben had omitted. Specifically Bryan’s relationship with Selma which makes for very uncomfortable reading. But Robben has talked about writing with honesty and respect, and as his parents worked in a home for those with mental and physical disabilities, he knows that means not averting the gaze in certain situations. As for his protagonist Bryan, although the summer ends not as he would have wished, experience has given him much insight into his brother’s world, his father’s true nature and a proven resilience that will stand him in good stead as he grows into adulthood.
World Editions was founded in 2013 by Eric Visser, publisher of Dutch literary house De Geus. Since 2016, World Editions has been part of the independent Libella Group, a European publisher with bases in Switzerland, France, and Poland. After opening up the New York office in 2018, World Editions joined the Independent Publishers Caucasus.
World Editions promotes voices from around the globe by publishing books from many different countries and languages into English translation. I’ve written about a number of their titles now, and can’t think of one I’ve haven’t enjoyed.
I read a review (think it was in the Guardian) of Summer Brother shortly after it was published. I thought the novel sounded quite interesting. Unlike the author, however, I’m afraid I am one who’s inclined to avert her gaze from certain subjects and decided to pass, since I wasn’t sure about their inclusion here. Your review makes me think that Robben treated uncomfortable material in an honest and non-sensationalist way, so perhaps I’ll reconsider.