Prizes aren’t everything, but it’s certainly nice to win them, something Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker knows all about. The first of his novels to make it into English, The Twin, won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award back in 2010, and this was followed up by the success of The Detour (Ten White Geese in the US) in 2013’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. That’s quite an accomplishment, even if it does raise expectations for subsequent books. Still, no pressure, eh, Gerbrand? 😉
The latest of Bakker’s books to make it into English is June (translated by David Colmer, review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications). It starts in 1969 with a royal visit, the Dutch Queen visiting small towns and villages in a rural area to get close to her people. As one of the visits draws to a close, a woman comes hurrying up with her child, just in time to see the Queen before she leaves. There’s a touch on the cheek, a photograph and – much later – a sobering end to the day.
Almost forty years on, the Kaan family are spending a hot day at their old farmhouse. While five-year-old Dieke is happy enough running about, the other family members are more troubled. Uncle Jan is out at the cemetery, tending to the grave of his dead sister. Grandmother Anna, meanwhile, has shut herself up in the hayloft, dreaming of what might have been:
“Anna began getting visions of a daughter who squatted down next to her chair to ask softly if she was enjoying herself, before handing out sheets of paper with a song she’d written for the occasion, a song to be sung ‘to the tune of’, the same daughter who had earlier exclaimed cheerfully how lovely it was to finally see baboons in real life.”
p.82, (Scribe Publications, 2015)
As the sweltering June day draws on, we see how the ghosts of the past (one in particular) affect the present. Two days separated by decades – one a day to remember, the other to forget…
In June, the attentive reader will find definite echoes of Bakker’s other novels. The country setting, with its wide-open spaces and isolated towns is reminiscent of the landscape of The Twin, while the background spite and repressed anger of both the previous books are evident here as well. This is a novel where little happens, but anything might; it’s all about what’s going on beneath the surface.
The forty years since the Queen’s visit have not been kind to anyone, and there’s a palpable sense of an end of an era. The once bustling farm has been reduced to an old duck and one fed-up bull; the trees are beginning to sicken, needing to be felled. Even the house itself seems to be on its last legs, with missing tiles, balconies on the verge of collapse and cracks suddenly appearing in the windows, brought about by the blistering heat of the day.
It’s not just the house feeling the effects of a hot, uncomfortable day, with the family affected too. For some, the weather merely causes listlessness; for others, irritation, or even anger. Poor Dieke is confused by the events of what, for her, is just a normal day:
“It’s as if everyone’s gone crazy today. Her mother’s grumpy and she doesn’t know why.” (p.198)
As the family go about their business, old grudges are recalled and unresolved arguments bubble to the surface. The rain threatening to break the dry spell isn’t the only storm brewing in the distance.
The character studies are the strong point of June, with a multitude of viewpoints given in many short chapters. Most of the attention is spent on the Kaan family (old Zeeger and Anna, Klaas and his daughter Dieke, the other sons, Jan and Johan), but there are also several important figures outside the family. The baker, the man who caused the young girl’s death so long ago, is one of them, along with the widow, Dinie Grint, whose son is intimately connected with at least one of the Kaans. The photos and memories they share help us to piece together what actually happened back in 1969.
I also enjoyed the way the novel is bookended by the visit of the Queen. In these sections, Bakker very cleverly sketches out a very human monarch:
The Queen pats her hair into place. “Are you sure you won’t take a small glass of sherry?”
“No, thank you, ma’am, really not.”
“Then I’ll have another half a glass for you.” (p.11)
I have to say that I find it hard to imagine Queen Elizabeth doing that – this is a fascinating glimpse of a very different style of royal family…
Despite these good points, truth be told, I wouldn’t say the book works overly well. June was actually written before The Detour, and I think it was a wise decision to leave this one for later translation. There’s obviously a lot the writer wants to say, but the reader (or this reader, at least) is never quite sure what the point is, with the book failing to cohere, leaving the impression of a messy tangle of half-developed ideas. It ends well, with a longer section revisiting the past, but it doesn’t quite make up for the slow, meandering middle parts.
If you’ve read his other books, though, you’ll probably enjoy this one. It has a similar style, with another excellent translation from Colmer, whose prose catches the tense undercurrents bringing the flaws and idiosyncracies of the minor characters (such as Dinie Grint’s casual, hypocritical racism and homophobia) to the fore, and I’m sure it’ll find its fans. Still, I don’t think this will be bringing more silverware to the Bakker cabinet. In truth, like the storm which never seems to arrive, June just doesn’t quite get where it wants to go.