The British expression "donkey's years" means "a long time," and the phrase is perfectly applied to the encounter between Helmer van Wonderen and his dead brother Henk's girlfriend Riet after 40 years, since Helmer's old-fashioned habit of keeping donkeys for work on his isolated, swampy Dutch farm is something straight out of the past.
Riet asks a favor of Helmer that changes the literal stick-in-the-mud's life. He agrees to hire her troubled teenaged son as a temporary farmhand, and this brings back his memories of the family's former farmhand, Jaap. Helmer realizes that though he's close to 60, his life isn't a closed book. Novelist Gerbrand Bakker's considerable achievement is to take a character and location that might work in a Breughel painting and make them thoroughly relevant and contemporary.
But while this prize-winning novel's setting is bucolic, Helmer's actions speak more to universal flaws than to pastoral. He closets his aging, infirm father in an upstairs bedroom; he snubs his flirtatious and generous neighbor; he agonizes over the slightest change of status quo yet dreams of release. Why? All is revealed, slowly, and with a wonderfully quirky, misanthropic deliberation that we haven't seen in, well, donkey's years.