“Bakker is great! This book is great! Read more translated fiction!” – June by Gerbrand Bakker

Dutch author Bakker’s earlier novels have been racking up the literary trophies (IMPAC, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), so of course it’s perfectly logical that he’s more or less unheard of here in the UK (caveat: outside of those very few readers who pay deliberate attention to fiction in translation). I’d like to hope this book would change that, but that’s probably a little optimistic of me, right? However, if you’re reading this: Bakker is great! This book is great! Read more translated fiction!

Ahem. So, June is a funny one in terms of plot-summarisation. The back-cover blurb explains that the novel is about the long-term effects of bereavement on a family (and, to some extent, a community), the young daughter of which was knocked down and killed by their local baker on the day the Queen (Juliana, not Liz Windsor) came to visit their town in June 1969. The book picks up the story several decades later, on the anniversary of Hanne’s death, and follows her parents, three brothers and five year-old niece, as well as the baker himself and his sometime-lover (the mother of the one-time boyfriend of one of Hanne’s brothers), as they go about their day, avoiding or confronting, respectively, the spectre of the past. Nothing huge happens: Hanne’s headstone and grave gets tidied, some trees are felled, her mother hides herself in a hayloft, a photograph gets passed from one household to another, and one brother tentatively, and maybe belatedly, reaches out to another.

It’s a quiet, subtle book, then, and I’m not sure that the publishers did well to highlight the death in the blurb; to some extent it misrepresents the text as more sensationalist than it otherwise is, and it makes us read in search of the tragedy rather than letting that tragedy sneak up on us, as it otherwise might – which would, I think, make for a subtler, more moving read. I’m sure, of course that the kind folk at Vintage were just trying to help their readers along (and shift some units), but this is a book that’s about the slow unveiling of character and backstory, that encourages the reader to tease out the connections between the prologue (Juliana’s visit) and the main body of the text, and once we know it’s centred around this tragedy, we’re more inclined to read faster, to get to the juicy bits. Well, spoiler: there’s no real juicy bit. This isn’t a crime novel or a piece of melodramatic pulp; rather, it’s an examination of how long-ago hurt can linger with us and affect our relationships with one another in all kinds of tiny or unacknowledged ways. It’s about the impact of grief – as one character says, ‘the kind of story that lasts a person’s whole life, that should last a person’s whole life.’ The chapters don’t ramp up the action; they pull us through the daily grind and demonstrate how tragedy embeds itself in the quotidian. If there is a resolution or a message to be found here, it’s that people get damaged and they stay damaged and what recovery they can effect is never perfect and that they have to keep on with their lives however much it hurts.

What’s it like, though? The alternating narrators, the stream-of-consciousness style reporting of the day’s minutia, the dark undercurrent, and the small town/rural setting isn’t all that far off Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying – there’s the skirting round the central preoccupation, and the book’s concentration on the family’s internal dynamic and their place in the wider community (even if nobody’s mother is a fish – though fish do in fact feature…). Bakker’s adept at distinguishing the nuances of his various characters’ voices, and he’s unsentimental and yet deeply compassionate. It’s not a laugh a minute, certainly, but it’s not unremittingly bleak by any means, the characters are interesting and the (slight) plot is compelling. It lingers.

Any Cop?: Yes. Beautifully composed, touching and realistic.

 

Valerie O’Riordan


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