Translated by David Colmer
I don’t often open a review with an excerpt, particularly as long as the one above. I give away no personal secrets in acknowledging that I resort to it only under two sets of circumstances. One is that the excerpt is so powerful in capturing the novel that it demands prominence — that obviously is not the case here. The other, alas more frequent, is that I can't find the words to adequately capture the strengths and/or weaknesses of an author's approach — the best option seems to be to supply a sample, briefly describe my reaction and let visitors here decide for themselves.
Of the ten white geese in the field next to the drive, only seven were left a couple of weeks later. All she found of the other three were feathers and one orange foot. The remaining birds stood by impassively and ate the grass. She couldn’t think of any predator other than a fox, but she wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that there were wolves or even bears in the area. She felt that she was to blame for the geese being eaten, that she was responsible for their survival.
‘Drive’ was a flattering word for the winding dirt track, about a kilometre and half long and patched here and there with a load of crushed brick or broken roof tiles. The land along the drive — meadows, bog, woods — belonged to the house, mainly because it was hilly. The goose field, at least, was fenced neatly with barbed wire. It didn’t save them. Once, someone had dug them three ponds, each a little lower than the last and all three fed by the same invisible spring. Once, a wooden hut had stood next to those ponds: now it was little more than a capsized roof with a sagging bench in front of it.
For this reader, those two paragraphs do concisely illustrate both the narrative and descriptive threads that are the warp and woof of Gerbrand Bakker's The Detour. “Narrative?”, you might well ask in puzzlement — be forewarned that the example of the disappearing geese is a fair representation of “action” as it takes place in the novel. Description, on the other hand, is frequently present — comprehensive, yet concisely rendered, but often piling observation on top of observation in a manner that leaves the reader’s head swimming.
The excerpt comes from early in the book. At this point, we know that a Dutch woman, Emilie, is experiencing her first few days at a rural house she has rented in Wales. She has already found a stone circle with a colony of badgers: “When they noticed her they ambled off into the flowering gorse.” An extensive description of the interior of the house and its exterior surroundings (stream, gardens, trails, nearby villages) soon follows. Again, it is fair to say that Bakker wants his readers to have a firm understand of “where” before he gets to “what”, let only “why”, in his story.
I admit the following somewhat spoils his deliberate approach, but in the next few chapters (they are very short — 60 in a 230-page book) he offers some murky hints on what has caused Emilie to relocate to Wales, a decision that clearly represents getting away from something rather than heading towards some bright new future:
Emilie did not let her husband know she was leaving. There are occasional chapters which return to Amsterdam and feature him: Bakker uses his confusion and eventual search for her as a way of revisiting elements of that back story.
Most of the story, however, is concentrated on what she discovers and does at her new “home” in Wales, near Mount Snowden. Given Bakker’s tilt to description, most of that discovery involves the natural elements, but two significant Welsh characters do get introduced. Rhys Jones is a sheep farmer who rents grazing land owned by the deceased widower whose house Emilie has rented. More important is Bradwen, a 20-year-old student mapping a long-distance trekking path who shows up one day. His overnight stay gets extended and he soon becomes not just Emilie’s helpmate in cleaning up the property but her contact with the external world — not just this new one but, metaphorically at least, also the one that she is fleeing.
That’s pretty much all there is to The Detour — as you may have concluded, the title is quite apt. Okay, there is eventually a sort of resolution, but even that when it happens seems to be more a part of the continuum of the story than an actual conclusion.
Gerbrand Bakker is one of those translated authors who has won significant attention in the English-language publishing world. His previous novel, The Twin, won the 2010 IMPAC Award — if you don’t know his work, I’d urge you to check that review as well because in tone and structure that volume has many similarities with this one. The Detour, meanwhile, won this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. While I appreciated them both, I would be the first to admit that Bakker is one of those writers who is an acquired taste.
There is not a lot of humor in The Detour (although there are occasional bits), but I can’t resist concluding this review with some. One of the bloggers you will find on my blogroll is anokatony at Tony’s Book World who was inspired in his review of The Detour a few weeks back to create the genre of “Gorse Novel” (you’ll note from a quote in this review that a reference to “gorse” appears early, and reappears not infrequently, in this novel):
Here are the characteristics of a Gorse Novel.
1. A Gorse Novel takes place in an isolated rural area where the people are few and far between. But these lonely souls make up for their sparseness with all of their Eccentricities.
2. These folks in a Gorse Novel are necessarily very close to nature, and the novel will contain elaborate descriptions of the birds, the other wildlife, the plants, or the weather that will usually put all but the most dedicated readers to restful sleep.
3. People in a Gorse Novel don’t say much, and when they do, it is only in a few short words which are supposed to be Greatly Significant. So when a character says “Storm’s a coming”, it means much more than that a storm is approaching.
4. Nothing much happens in a Gorse Novel. There is an eerie sense of quiet and calm, so finally when some tiny event happens like an itch or a cough, it seems as momentous as an earthquake.
I liked The Detour (which is called Ten White Geese in U.S. editions, incidentally) more than Tony did, but I can’t dispute that it fits all four of those characteristics. And I did want to introduce the concept of Gorse Novel to regular visitors here. Many of you may recall that another blogging friend (John Self at Asylum) a few year’s back invented the description of Widescreen Novel: “…ambitious works containing a large cast of characters, far flung geographical settings, and modern history or political issues rendered in fiction.” (You can find an interesting discussion of the Widescreen Novel in my review and the ensuing comments of Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows.) I’d say John and Tony have succeeded in creating apt descriptions of two poles of contemporary fiction. The Detour is pretty much as Gorse a novel as you can get — maybe the real reason that I opened with that excerpt is that it includes so many of Tony’s characteristics.