Tessa de Loo: The Twins

Aug 25, 2015

A friend of mine recommended The Twins by a Dutch author Tessa de Loo to me. She praised the book for being a riveting page turner about twin German sisters who are separated after becoming orphans in 1930s. One of them, Anna is taken in by German relatives living a hard farmers’ lives, which their father escaped and became a black sheep of the family; the other, Lotte, is brought up in a large family of Dutch relatives. By a chance, they meet in a spa in the late 1980s to reconnect and share their perspectives on the 20th century, and most importantly on the Second World War.

There are several things of note. First off, the idea of long separated twins is clever one and provides an interesting structure. It gives the author two separate story lines spanning decades with characters the reader is wishing to come into contact even though the meeting of the present day twins is depicted as cold and hesitant from Lotte’s side and eager from Anna’s. One grew up in harsh conditions of farm work and faced challenges on every turn, the other was brought in comparatively rich and safe environment while her challenges seemed more personal. The narration switches between the two stories back an forth to keep them mostly in sync (but as the book progresses Anna gets more and more pages) while jumping to present day. There was something about this structure that bothered me and took me more than half the book to figure out: the personal histories are written in third person! I totally don’t understand this decision; the framing story makes them direct speeches and while one doesn’t expect quotation marks around whole chapters, the distancing created by the third person is bothersome. Why, just why?

The key concept explored in the book is good people driven or dragged by unnatural circumstances who try to make the best of their lives. The personal and human aspect was very pleasant because it was very varied. While some characters broke immediately, collaborated, turned on strangers, others found courage a went to extreme lengths to be humane in surreal situations. I’ve read reviews which pondered the story as humanizing “normal” Germans who were pleased with the development of things and welcomed the new order after the Great War, only later to realize what had happened. Some saw this aspect as a slippery slope which might lead to condonation of cruelty. I, personally, don’t see it as bleakly, because good people are easily corrupted, misled or manipulated by circumstances and the depiction of humanity and suffering on all sides of the war should rather serve as a hope and a reminder, not just as a warning of what each of us is capable of.

The book has average rating of 3.61 on GoodReads. Many of the reviewers mentioned a poor English translation of the book which brought it down. I read a Czech translation and didn’t get the feeling, that there was anything wrong with it or that it was clunky.

My last observation is that I should learn more about history. I’ve never really been much into it and I don’t hold the discipline in high esteem because of the way it fills what’s missing and interprets everything by ever-changing lenses, but this book reminded me of the importance of it. Not the large scale theories and grand narratives but of the lives and fates of individuals.