Sunday 4 December 2016

Family of outsiders united only by emotional distance

Sophie Gorman

Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30

Beautifully restrained: Author Gerbrand Bakker's beguiling story unfolds slowly
Beautifully restrained: Author Gerbrand Bakker's beguiling story unfolds slowly
June by Gerbrand Bakker
Author Gerbrand Bakker

When Dutch author Gerbrand Bakker accepted the 2010 IMPAC award for his debut novel The Twin, his memorable acceptance speech focused entirely on the Netherlands' unsuccessful entry in the 1994 Eurovision song competition, he even recited the lyrics and ended playing the song itself. This might seem unconventional but then again Bakker is determinedly singular. He is a professional gardener who writes beautifully restrained novels of distinctive clarity.

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Bakker is shortlisted again this year for The Detour, but this latest book, June, was actually his second novel published in Dutch, only now being translated. He has worked again here with regular translator David Colmer and they have together developed a most distinctive literary voice. Bakker's stories unfold slowly and none more unhurriedly than this story of the repercussions of a single fateful moment rippling down through the generations.

June begins with the visit of the Queen of Holland to a small rural town on a sticky June day in 1969. The locals have lined the streets, most are ecstatic to meet her, a redheaded boy scowls. Queen Juliana is presented with pygmy pigs, she admires the shiny new bread van, a woman dashes up late on her bicycle with her two-year-old daughter who has the biggest blue eyes.

The story moves to another hot June Sunday morning at a farmhouse kitchen table, a father, a mother and their young daughter, who wants to see her visiting uncle. He was last seen cycling on a borrowed bicycle in the direction of the cemetery. The father, Klaas Kaan, is now our narrator and his wife finally yields to her daughter's beseeching and they set off. An ageing widow stands at the window of her house overlooking the cemetery where her husband is recently buried, melting from the stifling heat, standing there in just her underwear. She sees the mother and daughter cycling by and realises they too can see her.

This town is timeless, unchanging as if fixed in a snow globe, but we gradually realise that time has actually jumped forward and we are now in the present.

Tragedy of the most devastating kind is at the heart of June and Bakker is good with bleakness. And emptiness, though this is much less empty than his previous books. By Bakker's standards, it's positively crowded with characters. The narration baton is passed quickly between them, often we have different perspectives on the same scene. It does take some time familiarising with all these individuals as we put together a jigsaw picture of this town.

And Bakker is mischievously slow to let us know which are the pieces of the core story. We are given faint clues, but often only realise retrospectively. We don't know which characters to follow, the reluctantly returned Uncle Jan, his enquiring niece Dieke, his mother Anne who has taken to the straw roof of the barn with a bottle of advocaat, the strange overly sexualised widow Dinie?

The story wanders non-linearly, the way our minds wander. We begin by remotely circling the past in the present, not knowing what single event has shaped these lives, and then we gradually hone in until we arrive at the heartbreaking moment itself, and with it full understanding.

June is perhaps not quite as compulsive as Bakker's previous works, it does take its time establishing its driving purpose, its shape. But then we do become beguiled by this strange family of outsiders, united only by their emotional distance. They are determinedly detached from one another and yet enduringly and implicitly involved. The parents, their three now adult redheaded sons, their granddaughter. The pivotal figure being their only daughter, notable for her absence.

This is peppered with Bakker's remarkable way of describing people and land, equal weight being given to both. And June does build most ominous momentum, as we are subtly gripped by June's stubborn stoicism.

Fiction: June

Gerbrand Bakker

Harvill Secker, 240 pages, pbk, €24.99

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