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Not so foreign after all

A Dutch novel that depicts a family reunion – and a shared trauma

Simon Willis | May/June 2015

TITLE JUNE
AUTHOR GERBRAND BAKKER
ORIGINAL LANGUAGE DUTCH
TRANSLATOR DAVID COLMER

The event hanging over Gerbrand Bakker’s watchful new novel is, as he writes near the end of the book, “the kind of story that lasts a person’s whole life”. It’s a high and hot June day, and the Kaan family have reassembled on their farm, set amid the dykes and ditches of northern Holland. But this is not a happy reunion.

Anna, by turns bitter and withdrawn, hides herself away in a hay loft, slowly drinking a bottle of Advocaat. Her husband, Zeeger, chops down trees in their gloomy garden. Meanwhile, Jan and Johan, two of their sons, fractiously tend a grave in the local cemetery. It belongs to their sister, Hanne, killed 40 years before on another high and hot June day, and one that had been supposed to be a celebration: the queen had come to visit the village.

Bakker’s prose is as straight and constrained as the Dutch flatlands, and full of painful detail. The rusty ironwork on a balcony railing crumbles to the touch, the pages of a notebook feel brittle in the dry air. Everything on the farm, from the sheep waiting to be buried to the clapped-out car disintegrating in the field, goes uncared for, suspended by a terrible lethargy.

Bakker deals with the story of Hanne’s death in brief, oblique snatches, as though the book—like the characters—can’t quite look it in the eye. The novel’s strength is its parched stillness. Bakker conjures the attenuated atmosphere of an endless summer day—the one the members of the family are living through now, and the one four decades ago that still has them in its grip. This is a tender and traumatic portrait, showing how the past is not a foreign country. ~ SIMON WILLIS

Harvill Secker, June 11th

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