Review: The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker

the Detour Book CoverThe Detour [2010/2012] – ★★★★

This is a book by a Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker, whose previous book The Twin [2006] won the International Dublin Literary Award. The Detour (also known as Ten White Geese), translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, is about a Dutch woman who moves from her country and starts to live alone on a farm in rural Wales. Some of her nearby neighbours are badgers, cows and ten white geese whose number declines rapidly and mysteriously the longer she lives on her rented farm. Equipped with a poetry book by Emily Dickinson, the woman seems to be on the run from her past, trying to either delay or solve her immediate problems by seeking refuge in an unknown and isolated location. Her peace is soon disturbed by those with curiosity and inquisitiveness. With elegance and delicacy, Bakker draws on the nature in his book to shed light on the mystery that is this woman and her past, with his book becoming a quiet and poignant exploration of loneliness, pain and human connection.

Bakker admitted that he writers “instinctively” and that is definitely felt in his novels – they do have this feeling of coming straight from the heart. Bakker explores personal past, grief and attempts to connect to others through his vivid descriptions of nature and animals. Situating a character within the nature domain provides a special emotional resonance and perspective. There is a strange and quiet immediacy to the author’s writing and, as we read The Detour, we soon begin to care for this woman who calls herself Emilie – what could have brought her to this secluded place in a foreign-to-her country where she does not know anyone?

The farm and the house where Emilie starts to live are special places which emphasise the meaninglessness of time. Emilie’s rented farm is located near some ancient stone circle, a “timeless” place where people went to reconnect with their ancestors and forget their everyday concerns. The secluded farm is exactly the place where one can draw strength from the soil, seek solace in nature, and become attuned to it and its sounds. While on the farm, Emilie forgets the passage of time and becomes directionless. She does not have any clock in her house and, soon, senses the uncertainty of everyday existence: “she senses how vulnerable people are when they have no idea what to do next, how to move forward or back” [Bakker/Colmer, 2010/2012: 7]. Sleep becomes another refuge for Emilie: “how pleasant that was, sleep. How separate from everything else. How free from the things that worry people when they’re not sleeping, the things that scare them, the things that loom before them like a mountain” [Bakker/Colmer, 2010/2012: 158]. Wine and nostalgia for the past are her other medications: “There was a sweet and spicy quality to the smell of the burning wood that made her think of the home-made borstplaat and speculaas her grandmother used to make and bring to their flat in the Rustenburgerstraat” [Bakker/Colmer, 2010/2012: 71]. Only the disappearing geese near her farm signal the passage of time and substitute a ticking clock, but their disappearing number also signals the irreversible loss, the loss that Emilie is unable to prevent.

In the story, Emilie soon has human company – but will they provide the needed relief for her?, and what about her husband who soon hires a private investigator to track his wife down? Apart from Emilie and hew new neighbours, her past seems to be devoid of identity and we hear of “the husband” or his “parents-in-law”, but never of their names as though their identities are meaningless and do not matter. What really matters in this book is Emilie’s “present now”, this hour, this minute and this second of her life.

Bakker is his best when his book flows with the quiet descriptions of nature, and his dramatisations and dialogues have the touch of artificiality in them. Although too slow, the book is never tedious as the author strikes a delicate balance between concealing and revealing, and there is a feeling that we are slowly heading to an unpredictable climax in The Detour. We do get to know more about Emilie, and her past and present situations through the conversations that her husband has with his parents-in-law in Holland and through Emilie’s own images of the past resurfacing.

The Detour wields a strange power – barely perceivable, but heart-felt. The book has a special poignancy to it, slowly becoming the work of quiet beauty and conviction.

8 thoughts on “Review: The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker

    1. Sylvain Tesson? Very interesting. I see from your blog that you are listening to “The Snow Leopard,” and it sounds like a fascinating book (I will be anticipating your review!). I previously read some non-fiction books on the Tibet region, which I enjoyed and it looks like I have to put Tesson’s book on my immediate TBR too, thanks, especially since it is about the tracking of a rare animal.

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  1. I loved this book. I remember when it won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, many years ago, and while it was the only book I read from their long list that year, I thought it was certainly the best choice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am glad you loved it. I don’t know how Bakker does it because he seemingly does not do anything special – but somehow his prose just works so well and there is always such a delicate balance in his books between an enigma, barely perceivable suspense, descriptions of nature, etc. Magic.

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