Archive for the ‘Bakker, Gerbrand (2)’ Category

The Detour, by Gerbrand Bakker

July 10, 2013

Translated by David Colmer

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.

Purchased at

Purchased at

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.

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:

  • Her relationship with her husband back in Amsterdam has degenerated to the point that there is no hope of recovery — at least not one that would be worth the effort for her (“effort” is not one of Emilie’s core competencies, it should be noted).
  • She’s an academic, frustrated with her work on a critical evaluation of some of Emily Dickinson’s minor poems (which she regards as drivel) but she has brought her material with her.
  • She’s apparently had some sort of dalliance with a student back in Holland, which has contributed to the tension with her husband, although the author is careful to leave the reader guessing just what might have been involved.
  • Both she and her husband have been going through fertility testing. There are dark hints that the medical intervention may have revealed a much more serious health issue.
  • 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. 🙂


    The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker

    April 29, 2010

    Purchased at

    Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

    This review comes two days after its promised publication and there is a reason for that. I was about one-third of the way into The Twin when I put up the promise — I did not realize then that this is a book that absolutely demands that readers put it down and contemplate it for a while along the way before resuming reading. For me, it was worth the wait. I am not sure that every reader would feel the same.

    The singular “twin” of the title of this book is important. Helmer is the surviving twin; the other twin, Henk, died some decades ago. That event has left an indelible impact on Helmer, the survivor. The book is an exploration of what that separation has produced.

    The book opens with Helmer, now 55, moving his own father upstairs in the family home, a powerful indication that this book will be about endings in many different forms:

    It’s raining and a strong wind has blown the last leaves off the ash. November is no longer quiet with a fresh chill in the air. My parents’ bedroom is my room now. I’ve painted the walls and ceiling white and given the hardboard sheets a second coat of primer. I’ve moved the chairs, Mother’s dressing table and the bedside cabinets upstairs. I put one bedside cabinet next to Father’s bed and stowed the rest in the spare room next to his bedroom: Henk’s room.

    That quotation comes from early in the book and does an excellent job of framing the story. Helmer is an aging man whose father is dying and he is trying to cope with that. But even more he is being reminded that he needs to cope with his past.

    And the most critical part of that past is his twin, Henk. Helmer and Henk were like one until an evening in the pub when a meeting with Riet showed that they were two different people. Henk and Riet planned to be married (which meant isolation for Helmer) but a tragic driving accident led to Henk’s death — and Helmer has been living with it ever since.

    Henk and I were born in 1947; I’m a few minutes older. At first they thought we wouldn’t live to see the next day (24 May), but Mother never doubted us. ‘Women are made for twins,’ is what she supposedly said after putting us on the breast for the first time. I don’t believe it: statements like that always emerge from a mass of events and comments finally remain as a sole survivor. Plenty of other things must have been said at the time and this was most likely a variation on something Father or the doctor said. Mother probably didn’t say much at all.

    There are other elements at play in The Twin but I think that pretty much sums up the book: an aging, very lonely Dutch farmer (who really didn’t want to be a farmer, but his twin died) is contemplating how to face the last couple decades of his existence.

    For this reader, Bakker delivered on this slender premise in exceptional form. The story is told in the first person and there is not a lot of action: the book is a mix of looking back and describing current circumstances. The structure demands some stretches where the author has to be granted licence (and I won’t spoil the review by revealing them here) — I was willing to grant them, but I am certainly not going to quarrel with those who don’t.

    The Twin is an intensely introspective novel that will not be to everyone’s taste. And the shortness of this review is a reflection of that — this is an excellent book, but the more that I attempt to describe it, the worse I make it for future readers. If you read and liked Out Stealing Horses, a previous IMPAC winner, I suspect you will like this book. If you hated that novel (and some people certainly did), this is not one to waste your time on. I thought it was very successful and the fact that I delayed completing reading it by several days is even more important than anything that I could write about it. There are very few books that explore interpersonal relationships (especially male) as well as this one does.

    (You might also want to check Trevor’s review here — while he shares my view of tone and mood, he does go into more detail on some of the elements of the plot.)

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