Tag Archives: Gerbrand Bakker

Paperbacks to Look Out For in June 2016

Cover imageWell, this is a turn up for the books (sorry) – I seem to have already read all but one of the paperbacks published this June that I’m interested in. I’ll kick off with one of the few successes from my Baileys Prize wish list back in February: Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory which made it onto the longlist but not the shortlist, sadly. Within the first brief paragraph, Gappah manages to hook you with both a grisly death and the announcement that our narrator, a black Zimbabwean albino now on death row, was sold to a strange man by her parents. Memory slowly reveals her story finally delivering a devastating denouement. A multitude of well-aimed barbs are shot at modern Zimbabwe along the way, all spiced with a hefty helping of Memory’s acerbic wit.

Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World was also on my Baileys wish list, more in hope than expectation it has to be said. Despite its rather insipid jacket it’s a smart, elegantly understated piece of writing which looks at the complexities of parenthood and marriage, belonging and dislocation, following Charlotte and her family across the world from her beloved Cambridge to Australia where her husband Henry is intent on proving himself. Bishop tackles the tricky theme of motherhood with an unflinching honesty, exploring its contradictions with a powerful subtlety.

Marriage and motherhood pop up again in Gebrand Bakker’s June. It’s set largely on a single Cover imageSaturday in a small Dutch village but at its centre is Queen Julianna’s visit on June 17th 1969 nearly forty years before, a day of celebration which turned into tragedy when a farmer’s two-year-old daughter was killed. Her mother has regularly taken herself off to the hayloft over the forty years since the accident, ignoring all attempts to talk her down. There are no fancy descriptive passages littered with similes and metaphors in Bakker’s writing: it’s clean and plain but richly evocative for all that.

Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor has more than a touch of the Gothic fairy tale about it: a dour castle sitting atop a remote mountain, warring factions complete with a heroic ‘exceptionally handsome’ captain, a fair lady with whom our own hero falls in love and a satisfying arc of redemption. It opens with seventeen-year-old Lucy Minor leaving home to take up the titular position of undermajordomo. His mother sees him off from the cottage door, barely waiting for Lucy to close the garden gate. Lucy is glad to be on his way, hoping for adventure, convinced that he is meant for better things. Like DeWitt’s previous novel The Sisters Brothers, Undermajordomo Minor has a richly cinematic quality which brought to mind Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in its almost cartoon-like depictions of the odd world in which Lucy finds himself. A thoroughly entertaining novel.

Cover imageThe only unread title in this month’s paperback publishing schedules that takes my fancy is Liza Klaussmann’s Villa America, largely because I enjoyed her debut, Tigers in Red Weather, set in a slightly Gatsbyesque world – although at the end of the Second World War. This new novel features the Fitzgeralds entertained, alongside the likes of Picasso, dos Passos and Hemingway, by Gerald and Sara Murphy in their villa on the French Riviera until a stranger arrives and the dream shatters. Novels peopled by historical figures are sometimes far from successful but such was my enjoyment of Klaussmnn’s first novel that I’ll be giving this one a try, and that cover is lovely although it would have been so much more elegant without the Tigers in Red Weather inset.

That’s it for June. A click on a title will take you to my review for the books I’ve already read and to Waterstones website for the one I haven’t. If you’d like to catch up with the month’s hardbacks they’re here and here.

June by Gerbrand Bakker (transl. David Colmer): Deceptively simple

JuneThis is my first Gerbrand Bakker. I’ve been aware of a good deal of interest and acclaim around his books for a while but somehow hadn’t got around to him. With its title and glorious blue-skied cover promising summer it seemed appropriate to pick up his new novel on one of the several miserably cold, wet and windy days that began our own June in the UK. It’s set largely on a Saturday in a small Dutch village but at its centre is Queen Julianna’s visit on June 17th 1969 nearly forty years before, a day of celebration which turned into tragedy.

It opens with the Queen reflecting on the many places she’s visited, the inappropriateness of a shrimp buffet at 10 a.m. and her irritation with the civil servant detailed to look after her not to mention the artist constantly sketching her in preparation for sculpting a bust. Just as she’s about to leave, ceremonial duty discharged, a young woman arrives clutching her two-year-old daughter. The Queen greets her, lightly touching the child’s cheek. Later that day an accident will leave the little girl’s family bereft. The rest of Bakker’s novel follows another sweltering June day largely through the Kaan family, beginning with Anna, the two-year-old’s mother – now a grandmother – who has regularly taken herself off to the straw loft on the rundown family farm since 1969, ignoring all attempts to talk her down. The latest trigger is her golden wedding anniversary celebration, a family trip to the zoo which proved to be far from an unalloyed joy.

There are no fancy descriptive passages littered with similes and metaphors in Bakker’s writing: it’s clean and plain but richly evocative for all that. His narrative shifts smoothly from character to character, unfolding events through internal monologues filled with memories interwoven with prosaic observations on family life and the state of the farm, the most effective of which is five-year-old Dieke’s with her questions teasing out what happened to her aunt. Small details slip in through these different points of view coalescing into a picture of that other June day. There’s a great deal of quiet humour underlying the heartache – the poor old dog is thrown into the ditch by just about every member of the family to cool him down, each of them thinking that they’re the only one who’s done it, while the Queen reflects ’I am sixty years old… …For more that twenty years I have been sitting in my official capacity on lavatories like this. How long can anyone bear it?’ How long indeed! I gather from Twitter that June’s reception has not been entirely positive but as it’s my first Bakker I’ve nothing to compare it with: suffice to say it won’t be my last. Compliments to the translator, too – my bet is that it’s harder to translate plain and – apparently – simple prose while retaining its subtlety than it is to produce a flowery interpretation but David Colmer pulls it off beautifully.

Books to Look Out For in June 2015: Part 2

cover imageQuite a mixed bunch for this second batch of June goodies. I’ll start off with what is probably my most commercial choice as we edge towards summer reading: Laura Barnett’s enticing sounding The Versions of Us which explores that old Sliding Doors idea of the role chance plays in our lives. It unfolds three different versions of the possible lives led by Eva and Jim who meet in Cambridge in 1958, aged nineteen. Each version hinges on a pivotal moment, a snap decision or random event. I like the sound of this very much – if handled deftly it could well be an excellent summer read.

Will Cohu’s Nothing But Grass doesn’t sound like the cheeriest of reads but it has the elements of an absorbing novel. Set in a small village riven with dark secrets – always the best kind – it begins with the murder of one workmate by another seemingly for no other reason than a fit of irritation. It’s a ‘portrait of a tarnished Albion’, apparently, with a strong vein of dark humour running through it. Cohu is the author of The Wolf Pit, an exploration of his rural childhood. This is his first novel – let’s hope it’s not autobiographical, too.

Sophie McManusThe Unfortunates sounds like the kind of absorbing summer read you canCover image sink into and forget about everything else. It’s about the wealthy Somners who face a difficult future, both financial and otherwise, as the matriarch of the family wastes away from a rare disease and her son goes to the bad. It’s described as ‘a rollicking wide-ranging story – of pharmaceutical drug trials and Wall Street corruption; of pride and prejudice, of paranoia and office politics, of inheritance, influence, class, power.’ I’m looking forward to some comeuppance, in fiction, at least, if not in real life.

Tod Wodicka’s The Household Spirit sounds like a bit of light relief after that. Howie and Emily have been neighbours in upstate New York since Emily was born. Each is very different from the other: Emily is outgoing and irreverent while the desperately shy Howie has been a recluse since his wife and daughter moved out. He’s a little worried about Emily who seems to have taken to gardening at night. What to do? Lifelong neighbours they may be but they’ve never exchanged a word. It’s described as a ‘poignant, big-hearted, and often humorous novel’ which might mean horribly sentimental but the premise is intriguing enough to give it a try.

Gerbrand Bakker’s an author I’ve been meaning to get around to for some time. June, his appropriately named new novel, is set over the course of one hot summer’s day in 1969 when all are gathered to greet Queen Juliana apart from Anna Kaan and her little daughter, Hanne, who arrive just as the Queen is about to leave. The queen graciously acknowledges them both – a golden day, then, but later Hanne is knocked down by a speeding baker’s van. The novel explores the effects of tragedy on both the family and its community.

The Reader on the 6.27Finally, Jean-Paul Didierlaurent’s The Reader on the 6.27 has been described as ‘Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore meets Amelie’ which could either mean that it’s wonderful or overly whimsical tosh but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Guylain hates his job at a book pulping factory, consoling himself every day with reading aloud the pages he’s saved from the pulping machine on the 6.27 train. When he discovers the diary of a young woman who seems as lonely as he is, he begins to fall in love. See what I mean about the possibility of whimsical tosh? We’ll see. It’s published under the usually reliable Mantle imprint so I’m willing to give it a try.

That’s it for June. If you missed part one you can catch up here, and a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis at Waterstones website should you be interested.