The Detour is a story of waving and drowning. It is an interior tale that grows out from the boxed-up world of its female protagonist into the grey exterior gloom of wintry north Wales where the sky is a lid that rarely lifts.
by Gerbrand Bakker
Harvill Secker, 231pp, £12.99
The woman – Emilie she calls herself (there is reason to doubt the truth of this) – lives alone in a roughshod cottage in open fields. Geese and badgers – and a fox, which whittles the geese from twelve down to four – are the moving presences, other than those which riddle her memory: a husband in the Netherlands, an old uncle who once tried to drown himself, a boy student with whom she disgraced herself, when indulgently “screwing around”.
This is the past from which she has fled, taking a mattress and a copy of the poems of her beloved Emily Dickinson. She researches the poet’s life. A small photograph of Dickinson stares from her mantelpiece, a comfort of sorts, perhaps later an accusation.
Gerbrand Bakker, the leading Dutch writer whose last novel, The Twin, won the £100,000 IMPAC literary award two years ago, enjoys cloaking his heroine in solitude. Less of everything – daylight, good company, humour, dialogue, a sense of purpose – is meant to feel weighty. You read each sentence in search of clues, just as the ever curious Emilie searches the landscape looking for meaning: the old stone circle, the distant mountain, the bendy streets of the nearest small town where she purchases bread and has a haircut and is, predictably, an object of curiosity.
What is her age? What does she look like? Where is she from, and where is she bound? Could we believe her if she told us? Bit by bit, we inhabit her limbo. Lying naked in the firelight, beneath dark, uncurtained windows, she arouses herself, “fantasising about things she would be better off forgetting”.Such as what? you wonder, sucking at every morsel of information Bakker drip-feeds onto the page.
Emilie’s past, like the wind-blown landscape that surrounds her, is shorn of comforts. Then, one day, she has a visitor, Rhys Jones, whose sheep graze her fields. She serves him cake: “The nail of his right thumb was blue and torn. He finished the piece of cake in five bites.” That precise description exemplifies one of Bakker’s strengths – the shorthand of character rendered graphically, and loaded with implication. But he also knows curiosity isn’t sufficient to keep us hooked. Something must happen.
And it does: the scene cuts to Holland where we find the cuckolded husband, angry, humiliated, discussing Emilie’s absence with her parents – a second-rate dialogue, full of awkwardness. Later, fertility problems are mentioned when the husband visits a doctor who refers to the woman’s test results throwing up something unexpected. Is this the reason for Emilie’s flight? A second ripple arrives with the coming of 20-year-old Bradwen, and his dog, when they vault the stone wall near Emilie’s cottage. He’s a hiker, he says. She cooks for him. He stays over. Relaxing later, she chides herself for his presence under her roof. “Not again,” she sighs. Ah, portent.
Nothing much happens that isn’t predictable. Once the husband learns of her whereabouts, he posts a card to signal “I’m coming”. He doesn’t say when, and it isn’t clear if his is a rescue or a pursuit, a threat or promise. He’s playing games, just as Emilie toys with Bradwen, and Bradwen in turn conceals the whole truth about who he is and how his presence ties in with Rhys Jones. Overarching all these ploys is Bakker’s teasing of his readers; the waving and drowning if you like. It’s hard to distinguish when the characters are coping, or out of their depth. The unfolding mood is grey and sombre, the prospects gloomy. Little accidents occur. One by one the geese disappear. Rhys Jones grows nastier and the husband closes in, just in time for the down-tilt we knew was coming.
The whole is conveyed with almost miserly restraint. The characters brush each other’s lives but rarely relate, leaving the reader feeling almost voyeuristic, and disconnected. Emily Dickinson, who hovers here in the shadows, once declared hopefully that “Hope is the thing with feathers.” In The Detour hope, alas, moults.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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