Gijs WilbrinkImage Keke Keukelaar

    To get straight to the point: The beasts by Gijs Wilbrink (38) is a hell of a debut novel. With the first sentence, the writer immediately plunges you deep into his world with an allure 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 those two uncles took him to the woods at night and made him do things that a nine-year-old boy shouldn’t be doing for a long time.’ You already know: here speaks a voice that has a great story to tell. And you immediately want to know more about it. Who is Tom Keller? What went wrong with him? What was he doing there in the woods when he was nine? What about those 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 (‘patjakker’). One night he went missing. It wasn’t until morning that the two poachers found him, tied in a game snare, along with a rabbit. They untied the boy and the rabbit and then forced him to shoot the stumbled rabbit. “This was the moment,” the narrator ominously proclaims, “when that youngster was cursed.”

    For the rest, the first pages of The beasts especially new questions. Sure, we come to know that the narrator belongs to a family “who have lived here in the middle of the village for centuries.” And also that the Kellers live ‘tucked away deep in the countryside, on the other side of the woods’. But what is it with the Keller family out there in that unnamed wooded area? What about that accident Tom will have later? What is ‘all this drama’ that the people of that region should have been spared?

    It’s not just questions like this that keep you glued to Wilbrink’s firstborn. In that case it would The beasts kind of a glorified thriller. No, you are also gripped by the grand, doom-pregnant, sensory language from which the questions bubble up. And also by the shadowy identity of the narrators, which is long maintained; the effect is that you have the feeling that a collective is speaking. But it is mainly the fusion of these three elements that does it. They carry the entire novel.

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    Image Typx

    Mythical area

    You’d The beasts could be called a regional novel, but then more or less as you would characterize the novels of Faulkner or, to stay closer to home, those of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld as such. The characters are not cardboard characters, but archetypes of flesh and blood. Their habitat is not a colorful decor, but an animated organism with which their existence is entwined. So you would be doing the novel short if you said it takes place somewhere in the Achterhoek, near the German border. No, the place of action 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, extorts, murders and rapes, there is of course much to tell and to gossip about. ‘Dirty, flabby fables’, that’s what it’s called in the novel itself.

    The first Keller we get to know well is Isabella, Tom’s daughter. That is remarkable, because she is trying to flee the Kellerclan (of which she is the youngest member). In the mid-1990s she left for Utrecht, officially to study art history there, but in reality to plunge into the alternative scene of squatters and animal activists. Or to quote another sentence set in stone: ‘She had come here to become who she should have been all these years, without being rebuffed by a last name that betrayed that your father was a failure, your uncle an animal abuser, your grandfather criminal.’

    But escape is not easy. Isabella’s grandfather Frank knows how to talk about that. In contrast to his brothers Johan and Charles, he earned his living decently, but due to an unbearable combination of circumstances it is precisely he who commits a murder (the fact of which is a highlight in the book). Due to the long prison sentence he is given, 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 go: Tom is thrown back to clan life with a big bang, maimed and all.

    Women break the mold

    So it doesn’t bode well when Isabella rushes back to her native region after four months in Utrecht, the place where she was born as a drug addict and would get many more teeth after that, and where she is now being sucked back to. Not only because her father has disappeared without a trace, but also because she cannot ignore the feeling that she belongs here. That 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 motorcycle career in one fell swoop.

    Intertwined with the history of the Kellers is the story of Annie and Maureen Teeking, two sisters who become conflicted when Maureen becomes a Keller by marrying Tom. The sibling break mirrors 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 looks like Isabella won’t go down in the family mud after all, thanks also to her fresh friend Erva from Utrecht. It is therefore the women who break the pattern of a tradition determined by men.

    “A good season awaits us,” he said The beasts off. That, combined with the feminist turn, is perhaps an all too gratifying outcome of a history marked by evil in many guises: envy, exploitation, incest, drug addiction, terror, deceit, violence. But this cover is again so intimidatingly 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.

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    Image Thomas Rap

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