June by Gerbrand Bakker review: stunningly humane

Not one word is misjudged in Dutch novelist’s story of tragedy and memory

Author: Gerbrand Bakker, translated by David Colmer
ISBN-13: 978-1846555459
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Guideline Price: £12.99

It is the day everyone in the small community remembers: the day Queen Juliana paid a visit. There were speeches, and a local man in clean overalls presented the queen with two pygmy goats. Her aides were uneasy; the queen enjoyed smoking and had a flair for the impromptu gesture, the kind of thing that makes a winning photo opportunity but can interfere with a tight schedule.

Yet that day, June 17th, 1969, had also been marked by a very different event – the tragic death of a little girl, Hanne Kaan, a few hours later, away from the cameras. Earlier the queen had noticed the child with her stressed mother in the crowd. They were running late, but Juliana, pulled off her glove and petted the cheek of the two-year-old, who shrank away, as children do from strangers.

Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker is brilliant on the complexities lurking within the apparently simple. He also has unusually astute powers of description and sees things in a way that consistently makes one look twice. In June, his grasp of detail is innate.

An elderly woman reading from a piece of paper at a funeral service is overcome. “She looked like a heron that could fall over at any minute.” Elsewhere, a boy notes that the “baker had a strange red face, a face that did not go with custard buns and almond cakes”. Every word has purpose. Bakker tells stories, yet within the narrative is an anthropological curiosity; he burrows to the very essence of humans without having to resort to either caricature or excess.


This astonishing novel not only matches the laconic genius of Bakker's debut, The Twin (2006; translated 2008), which won the 2010 International Dublin Literary Award, it could even surpass it. Bakker has many gifts; a precise prose style, a superb ear for dialogue, dry humour in abundance, and the ability to be profoundly moving without venturing into sentimentality.

Above all (and this is vital) Bakker, it seems, only writes when he has something to say and enjoys a unique collaboration with his translator, Australian David Colmer. There is nothing forced or faked about Bakker’s eerily perceptive work. His three adult novels to date send the mind racing.

It should be pointed out that The Detour, which was published in the Netherlands in 2010, a year after June, and appeared in English translation three years ago, won the British Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It is his third novel, whereas now we have June, which may be his most accomplished to date.

Different perspectives

As with The Twin, June is set in the countryside and, true to rural ways, his characters, most of whom are related to the dead child, don't say all that much. They remain preoccupied by the impact made by the accident, particularly little Hanne's three surviving, now middle-aged older brothers. The narrative unfolds through the perspectives of a number of individuals.

June is a novel about memory at its most random, intense and impressionistic. Bakker explores the way in which even the most exact images blur and converge. Time shifts create the sense of a changing world – almost 40 years have passed, and yet many of the older characters have not lost touch with their younger selves. It is a well-handled circular narrative, rich in freeze-frame set pieces.

Each of the three brothers has encountered failure. It is as if they were all marked by the same blow of fate that left them psychologically paralysed. The youngest, Johan, had subsequently suffered even more comprehensive injuries in a motorbike accident. Johan has been left slightly slower, but unlike his siblings, who are already becoming aged and worn, he is very handsome and possesses an outrageous logic all of his own. For Johan alone, time appears to have stopped.

The Kaan family were known to have a little ritual: “all the Kaan children slept downstairs for two years, in the bedroom next to the living room”. Then they moved upstairs. Little Hanne was due to have a new bedroom made for her, in the attic.

Along with the traumatised family members, including Anna, the mother, who 40 years on, has taken to routinely hiding in the hayloft, is the man who caused the accident. He is the local baker, still haunted by the tragedy, still sorry. He was driving his new van that day and was thinking about birds of prey. “That’s why he was driving sedately, not paying too much attention to the road” as he attempted to decide whether he was watching a buzzard or a harrier. Then he hit something.

At first he had thought it was the family dog, a young Irish setter.

“But if he had, how could the animal be sitting up like that? He felt the fright through his whole body once again, his knees started to shake . . . When the van came to a halt it was almost at right angles to the road. Silence. The smell of new leather and fresh bread. An unexpected gust of wind almost ripped the door out of his hand . . . There was nothing wrong with the dog. It hadn’t moved. It was sitting, but seemed to be pointing, as if the child lying half on the road was some kind of game.”

It is a remarkable sequence: Bakker evokes the roadside scene and the sense of stillness. The baker is in shock and, with that weird clarity that invariably strikes at such moments, he notices for the first time above the balcony on the farmhouse a plaque with a date: “Anno 1912”.

Nothing is said. Bakker does not bother to slavishly reconstruct the aftermath. There are no recriminations. The scene ends simply in a deliberately neutral tone: “The dog began to whimper softly.”

Crack in the glass

Early in the narrative, Dieke, the little niece of the long-dead Hanne, is alone in the living room of her family home. She is staring out over the lawn. There are six windows, but one of them has a crack in the glass. “The crack bothers her. It has for a long time now. She’s scared that the glass might fall out of the window frame, maybe while she is looking through it.”

The cemetery is central. Jan, a loner, returns to clean up his sister’s grave. The three brothers congregate there and also apprehend a local boy who is smearing various headstones with cow dung.

Bakker demonstrated such a mastery over the first-person voice in The Twin, in which a middle-aged man not only battles his demanding father who ruined his life but also must contend with the ghost of his dead brother. He convincingly entered the fraught mind of a disgraced and dying woman in The Detour. So it is interesting and impressive that he can also effectively explore June's contrasting perspectives.

There is a wry, kindly intelligence at work in this exceptional novel, with its cast of lost souls. It has ease, eloquence and humanity, along with bickering exchanges, communal sorrow and a real sense of family. Gerbrand Bakker studies the natural world as intently as he watches his fellow man, and therein lies his art.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times