Book review: June

ON a hot afternoon in June, 1969, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, as part of a country tour, arrives in the northern village of Slootdorp.

June

Gerbrand Bakker (translated by David Colmer)

Harvill Secker, €17.99: Kindle, €8.50

All the locals are gathered, speeches are made, followed by presentations of flowers and goats.

It is the sort of day that feeds the lore of a small town, a big moment in an otherwise largely innocuous existence. But there is also cause to remember this particular day for another, and far more tragic, reason.

Blom, the local baker, is out driving in his new van when he hits and kills a toddler, Hanne Kaan.

Nearly 40 years later, the effects of this accident are still being felt.

At the Kaan farm, the family is gathered, Anna and Zeeger, now elderly, celebrating their wedding anniversary with their three sons.

The problem is that they are a scarred brood. Klaas, their eldest, runs the farm now, with his wife and five-year-old daughter, Dieke, though they are thinking about selling.

Jan, out of work, has returned with intentions of maintaining their sister’s grave.

Johan, the youngest, is struggling with injuries sustained in a motorbike accident. And Anna herself, finding the grief still fresh, is hiding out in the hayloft, armed with a parade sword, a packet of Viennese biscuits and a bottle of advocaat, determined to drink herself into a stupor and refusing to come down.

Presented in a non-linear present tense, the story must be pieced together from various third-person fragments of both family members and others either intimately or by association involved with the events surrounding the young child’s death.

Yet what seems light on the surface, at least in terms of action, builds to a cumulative complexity and makes for a challenging but thoroughly rewarding read.

The author places high value on silence and stillness, in perfect keeping with the rural aspect of the story and the natural reticence of its cast, and a lot of the text, by focusing on apparently mundane moments, creates a series of visceral word pictures that achieve a haunting quality. Bakker’s descriptive prowess (diligently served by Colmer’s fine translation) and skill in framing set pieces, is little short of sublime.

In replicating and exploring the scatter-shot nature of sense-memory, he brings into focus the widespread consequences of every action, but also seems to suggest that remembrance might be as much an experience of the heart as of the mind.

In 2010, Gerbrand Bakker exploded onto the world writing scene when the English-language translation of his rapturously acclaimed debut novel, The Twin, won the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Three years later came The Detour, which again made the IMPAC shortlist and was also honoured by the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, ahead of such luminaries as Orhan Pamuk, Ismail Kadare, Laszlo Krasnahorkai and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

June, the author’s latest offering, was actually published in Dutch as his second novel, back in 2009. It is another astonishing piece of work: quiet, meditative, defined by its tenderness, compassion, occasional soft humour and a relentless — though never overwhelming — air of melancholy. And as in his other novels, the story seems to lie largely beyond the margins of the page.

What’s here is sad and sometimes lovely, and demanding of stately consideration. Nothing happens because everything has already happened, and these days, years and decades are the broken aftermath.

With this novel, his most ambitious yet and one likely to finish near or at the top of most year-end best-of lists, Bakker secures a place for himself among the world’s greatest living writers.


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