By: Jaap Robben
Translated by: David Doherty
Published: February 9, 2021
Publisher: World Editions
Dutch author Jaap Robben’s second novel, now translated in English, is a story of two brothers and a summer adventure neither will ever forget. At just thirteen-years-old, Brian expects his summer break to be full of lazy summer days and maybe working on getting his scooter running. On a visit to his brother who has lived in an institution for years, Brian and his father, Maurice, learn that he will need to live at home for a month or so while renovations are made. Lucien’s father decides, since the institution will now pay them to care for Lucien, that it’s a good idea to bring him home with them. Of course, there are numerous other factors at play here that tell the reader this will not be a good idea.
Lucien hasn’t lived outside of the institution for years due to his physical and mental disabilities. He has numerous needs including medicine, diaper changing, bathing, meals being fed to him, and physical therapy. Maurice is a father, really by name only. He doesn’t pay his bills. They live in a caravan, which from my research, appears to mean a debilitated camper in the woods. It isn’t a place for any kid to grow up, let alone a disabled one who needs lots of care. When they bring home a hospital bed and can’t even get it inside and leave it outside for Lucien to lay on during the day, you know that there will be trouble ahead.
There is so much that goes wrong during these few weeks of summer for Brian and Lucien, you just have to cringe while reading. There are the landlords, Henri and Jean, that are constantly asking Maurice for rent money. Then a new tenant, Emile, moves onto the property and adds more complications to the mix. Maurice is MIA nearly every day, leaving Brian to attend to Lucien’s needs. He does the best he can with what he has, but Brian has other interests. He met one of Lucien’s friends at the institution and sneaks away for visits leaving Lucien home alone.
If this set up alone doesn’t give you all the vibes of trouble ahead, I don’t know what will. The author offers excellent descriptions of the home, the characters, and the situations that give the reader plenty of opportunities to imagine the scenes playing out in our minds. The translation to English is seamless and I only found a few situations of words I had to look up to be sure I understood the meaning. The chapters are short and the story reads quickly. While you read, you feel like you are an onlooker at a very bad car accident. You know you shouldn’t stare, but can’t help yourself. In this story, you don’t want to keep reading because you know that trouble is coming, but you can’t stop reading because you have to know how bad it’s going to get.
The story ends after a climactic event, a bit abruptly for my tastes. There isn’t a lot of resolution and the reader is left with some unanswered questions. But, the final scene between Lucien and Brian tore at my heart and left me hopeful for a better future for both of them.
The publisher likens this story to “Rain Man”, the movie with Tom Cruise and his autistic brother, played by Dustin Hoffman. Cruise takes his brother out of an institution after finding out he has access to an inheritance that he’d like to have. The difference is that in “Rain Man”, the brothers are adults. But, the idea of brotherly love and commitment and being overwhelmed with the care of the disabled brother ring true to both stories.
Those who like stories of family drama, brothers, or dysfunctional families will appreciate the author’s example of a brother’s devotion to a deadbeat father and a forgiving brother.
Jaap Robben is a poet, playwright, performer, and acclaimed children’s author. ‘You Have Me to Love’ (Birk), his first novel for adults, has received international glowing reviews and is the winner of the 2014 Dutch Booksellers Award, the Dioraphte Prize, and the ANV Award for best Dutch debut. To date, the novel has sold over 50,000 copies in the Netherlands and is available in ten languages. ‘You Have Me to Love’ is currently being adapted into an English-language film. Robben was chosen as one of the featured debut authors at the 2018 Brooklyn Book Festival. His second novel ‘Summer Brother’ (Zomervacht), is also a bestseller in The Netherlands.