The Twin

The Twin is currently one of the only Dutch novels I’ve read (although I plan to bone up before my trip to The Netherlands this summer). It was a lovely novel, and was nominated for 2009’s Best Translated Book Award. You can read my original review on Three Percent, here, or the full text is below.

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Penetrating, beautifully sparse, and eerie in its stillness, Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin tells the story of Helmer van Wonderen, an aging farmer whose life has been characterized by passivity, inaction, and a profound sense of isolation. Having begrudgingly taken over the family dairy farm after the accidental death of his twin brother Henk, Helmer finds himself, after 55 years, suddenly and unexpectedly the master of his own life—if only he knew what to do with it.

For years, Helmer has been “doing things by halves,” living the life that was intended for his brother, a monotonous existence at the beck and call of his tyrannical father. As the story opens, however, Helmer has moved his father, close to death, to a bedroom upstairs, an act of self-assertion that pushes him to reassess his past and the decisions—or lack thereof—that have left him stagnated and alone. “Why did I let it all happen like this?,” he wonders. “I could have said ‘no’ to Father and ‘do it yourself’ or just ‘sell up.’”

But while Helmer may not be satisfied with the life that he has accepted for himself, it is a routine that if not fulfilling, is at least familiar. “I’ve milked the cows, day after day,” he reflects.

In a way, I curse them, the cows, but they’re also warm and serene when you lean your forehead on their flanks to attach the teat cups. There is nothing as calming, as protected, as a shed full of cows on a winter’s evening. Day in, day out, summer, autumn, winter, spring.

In the absence of any truly meaningful, reciprocative human relationships, Helmer has forged quiet connections with his animals. He finds solace in the ritual of milking his cows, keeps two identical donkeys as pets, and almost drowns himself trying to save a sheep mired in an irrigation ditch. And it is through natural imagery such as this—swallows sleeping on telephone lines, a hooded crow alighting outside the kitchen window, ducks swimming in a pond—that Bakker (a former linguist who has since become a gardener) is able to not only reveal more of his taciturn protagonist’s interiority, but also bring the narrative to a kind of gentle compromise between what should have been and what simply is.

On an unexpected trip to Denmark—his first holiday “in thirty-seven years of milking day and night“—Helmer walks down to a beach at sunset. “The beach is deserted,” he says.

There are no hooded crows in the sky and even the busy grey sandpipers are missing. . . I am the only one for miles around making any noise . . . I know I have to get up. I know the maze of paths and unpaved roads in the shade of the pines, birches and maples will already be dark. But I stay sitting calmly, I am alone.

By the novel’s close, Helmer has found some measure of peace and acceptance in his quiet life—even in his solitude.

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My Soul to Take

Iceland isn’t by any means known for its violent crime, but the crime genre has been developed to very interesting effect by Icelandic authors Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Yrsa wrote a really amusing piece in Mystery Readers Journal (Vol. 23, No. 5) on the “Depressing Lack of Crime” in Iceland, which unfortunately, is not available online. (You can order cheap back issues, however, and that particular one, on Scandinavian Mysteries, is definitely worth the $11.)

I reviewed Yrsa’s second novel My Soul to Take for the crime and mystery website Reviewing the Evidence, which reviews everything from serial killer thrillers to cozies. You can read the review in full below, or on RTE‘s website, here.

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In her essay, “A Depressing Lack of Crime,” Yrsa Sigurðardóttir laments the fact that “the few crimes committed [in Iceland] are exceedingly boring.” As she humorously bemoans,

There is seldom any question as to the identity of the culprit as 99.9% of the population are not into serious crime, leaving the police 300 suspects to work from. Considering that half of these 300 people have already been incarcerated, police investigations are not a mammoth task….An Icelandic murder lacks motive and the murderer is never egged on by any evil impulses, merely stupidity and impaired judgment.

It is perhaps in response to this dearth of real-life inspiration that Yrsa–and fellow Icelandic crime author Arnaldur Indriðason too, for that matter–have sought to manipulate the crime fiction genre, often describing murders and wrongdoings secreted for generations–complicated, elaborate crimes which frequently dispel the stereotype of the accidental, un-premeditated Icelandic murder: one which “…follow[s] an argument between two drunken men—one of whom happens to pick up a butcher knife to emphasize his point.”

In My Soul to Take, Yrsa adds another ingredient to the mix, tapping into her country’s fondness for ghost stories. The novel finds single mother and lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir representing Jónas Júlísson. This eccentric client owns a New Age health spa in Snæfellsnes, an area in western Iceland rumored to be haunted by disgruntled spirits and the ghosts of infants who were once abandoned on its rocky coastline. After Jónas is accused of the brutal murder and sexual assault of a talented architect in his employ, Thóra begins her own investigation, uncovering the troubling history of the mysterious property and the family who lived there decades before, as well as immersing herself in a world where the paranormal no longer seems as ridiculous as her practical instincts might suspect.

Yrsa has a knack for creating an atmospheric tone throughout the novel, with apt descriptions of the novel’s remote and mysterious location and the plaintive wails of ghostly children which wake Thóra and Matthew (her German companion, reappearing from Last Rituals) each night. Ironically enough, these spooks and scares – paired with Thóra’s distinctly unprofessional antics (such as breaking into sealed crime scenes) – actually make the novel feel almost farcical, the kind of chilling adventure tale that’s told around a campfire for an hour’s amusement.

The problem with this approach, however, is that Yrsa’s overall subject matter – brutal murders, sexual abuse, and child neglect – are inescapably serious, and it’s difficult as a reader to reconcile such grave circumstances with the almost flippant reactions which Thóra and other characters routinely display throughout the book. Dark humor in the midst of a crime novel can certainly be a welcome way to relieve a narrative’s tension, but an excess of it makes the characters seem at best, callous, and at worst, two-dimensional creations without much emotional depth. If Yrsa were to turn her future attentions to stories about less vicious circumstances, her darkly antic approach might be better served. For now, readers will need to accept that this diverting ghost story comes at the cost of any real empathy with the victims it portrays.