Gijs Wilbrink’s ‘The Beasts’ is one hell of a debut novel ★★★★★

Gijs WilbrinkPicture Keke Keukelaar

To get straight to the point: The beasts by Gijs Wilbrink (38) is one hell of a debut novel. With the first sentence, the author immediately throws you deep into his world with an attraction that rivals the opening sentences of Gabriel García Márquez’s novels: ‘I don’t want to say much, but I think things went wrong with Tom Keller when they two uncles took him out into the woods at night and made him do things that a nine-year-old boy shouldn’t do for a long time.’ You already know: here speaks a voice that has an amazing story to tell. And you will immediately know more about it. Who is Tom Keller? What went wrong with him? What was he doing in the forest when he was nine? What about the two uncles? And who is this emphatic narrator?

In “What I Must First Tell You About Tom Keller”, the opening chapter of the novel, only one of these questions is fully answered. As a nine-year-old boy, Tom Keller had to go rabbit hunting with his two uncles Johan (‘hamburger neck’) and Charles (‘patjacks’). One night he disappeared. It was not until morning that the two poachers found him, tied in a game snare, together with a rabbit. They untied the boy and the rabbit and then forced him to shoot the tripping rabbit. “This was the moment,” the narrator announces ominously, “when the youth was cursed.”

For the rest, the first pages of The beasts especially new questions. Of course, we learn that the narrator belongs to a family “that has lived here in the middle of the village for centuries.” And also that the Keller family lives ‘hidden far in the countryside, on the other side of the forest’. But what about the Keller family out there in the unnamed forest area? What about the accident Tom gets into later? What is ‘all this drama’ that the people of this region should have been spared?

It’s not just questions like this that keep you glued to Wilbrink’s firstborn. If so, it would The beasts a kind of glorified thriller. No, one is also gripped by the magnificent, pregnant with doom, sensory language from which the questions bubble up. And also of the narrators’ shadowy identity, which has long been maintained; the effect is that you have the feeling that a collective is speaking. But it is mainly the amalgamation of these three elements that makes it so. They carry the whole novel.

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Mythical area

You would The beasts could be called a regional novel, but as more or less as one would characterize Faulkner’s novels or, to be closer to home, those of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld as such. The characters are not cardboard characters, but flesh and blood archetypes. Their habitat is not a colorful decoration, but an animated organism with which their existence is intertwined. So you would be cutting the novel short if you said it takes place somewhere in the Achterhoek, near the German border. No, the setting is a mythical version of it.

The shadow of the Keller family hangs over this area. They are the terror of the region, the epitome of evil. And also: the talk of the town, because a family that poaches, smuggles, swindles, blackmails, murders and rapes, there is of course a lot to tell and gossip about. ‘Dirty, flabby fables’, says the novel itself.

The first Keller we get to know well is Isabella, Tom’s daughter. It is notable because she is trying to escape from the Keller clan (of which she is the youngest member). In the mid-1990s, she traveled to Utrecht, officially to study art history there, but in reality to throw herself into the alternative scene with squatters and animal activists. Or to quote another phrase in stone: ‘She had come here to become who she should have been all these years, unrejected by a surname that betrayed that your father was a failure, your uncle a animal abuser, your grandfather criminal .’

But escape is not easy. Isabella’s grandfather Frank knows how to talk about it. Unlike his brothers Johan and Charles, he made a decent living, but due to an unbearable combination of circumstances, it is he who commits a murder (which is a highlight of the book). Because of the long prison sentence he receives, his son Tom (who had already lost his mother at birth) is at the mercy of Johan and Charles. Yet there also seems to be a way out for him. He has a huge talent for motocross, is snatched from England by a hotemet and is on his way to the world championship. But the blood is thicker than it should be: Tom is thrown back into clan life with a big bang, maimed and all.

Women break the pattern

So it does not bode well when Isabella rushes back to her birthplace after four months in Utrecht, the place where she was born a drug addict and would get many more teeth after that, and where she is now being sucked back into. Not only because her father has disappeared without a trace, but also because she can’t ignore the feeling that she belongs here. It sinks deeper and deeper into her as she searches for her father. In addition, she discovers exactly what happened with the accident that ended her father’s motorcycling career in one fell swoop.

Intertwined with the story of the Kellers is the story of Annie and Maureen Teeking, two sisters who come into conflict when Maureen becomes a Keller by marrying Tom. The sibling break reflects the rift that arose between Johan and Charles when they discovered Tom’s motorcycle talent. But there is an important difference: things go better between the sisters than between the two brothers. And it could be wrong: It seems that Isabella will not go down in the family mud after all, also thanks to her fresh friend Erva from Utrecht. It is therefore the women who break the pattern in a tradition determined by men.

“We have a good season ahead of us,” he said The beasts of. That, combined with the feminist twist, is perhaps an all too happy outcome of a story characterized by evil in many guises: envy, exploitation, incest, drug addiction, terror, deception, violence. But this cover is again so frighteningly well worded that in the end you also completely surrender to what the novel has to say.

Gijs Wilbrink: The beasts. Thomas Rap; 399 pages; €23.99.

null Picture Thomas Rap

Picture Thomas Rap

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