Gerbrand Bakker’s “The Detour“, translated from Dutch into English by David Colmer: This is a story about a woman with a debilitating illness who has escaped from her former life in Amsterdam and retreated into a rural farmhouse, complete with an unused pigsty, geese and roaming sheep, in northern Wales. Narrated from a third-person perspective, the book follows ‘Emilie’ as she, a city girl/woman, tries to take control of her rural surrounds – e.g. by sawing away at unsightly alder branches – and to get her bearings in this foreign landscape filled with “songs from birds she couldn’t identify and had never known”.
The pace at the beginning of the story is rather slow; quite fitting, as she discovers her environment and tries to make sense of it. Before you know it, there’s suddenly Bradwen, ‘the boy’ who fell into her garden together with his sheep dog Sam. Back in the Netherlands, her husband looms in the background, trying to make sense of her disappearance with a policeman and her parents.
There are several things that I don’t understand, especially the relationships between some of the characters – e.g. between the husband and the policeman, the seemingly unconditional kindness that ‘the boy’ has for ‘Emilie’. But this doesn’t make the story any less striking or haunting.I’m not to going to say more about how the novel turns out, but I’d like to share some parts that touched or struck me.
After having been agitated by the geese in the middle of the night, “she sank to her knees and looked up at the sky, Never before had she seen so many stars. Never before had she looked up at them naked on her knees in late November”.
There were moments that her mortality and fragility were highlighted, buffered by the tender reassurance of ‘the boy’:
At the stile, things went fuzzy. Then everything turned dark purple and when she came to her senses again she was leaning on a cross piece, the boy pressed up against her back with his arms wrapped around her… he was breathing on the back of her neck, his forearms clamped around her belly as if he were scared something would fall out of her. ‘There, there,’ he said, encouraging her to stay calm.
A cramp twisted her belly, she couldn’t look him in the eye… she heard him stand up. Out of the corner of her eye she saw him push the dog aside with one knee. She felt a hand, a whole forearm on her back and smelt his breath. She pressed her head against his stomach. ‘I’m glad you’re here,’ she said. She looked down past his trouser legs at the neatly swept kitchen floor. A sock with an L and a sock with an R. Broad feet.
Other times, there were occasional matter-of-fact comments such as “protection, she’d thought, that’s for healthy people” and “sometimes a day’s work is for nothing because it leads nowhere” that made me stop and ponder for a moment.
I reluctantly finished The Detour in a day.
The only thing I don’t like about this book is its cover. Love the looming grey clouds. Can’t say the same about the geese in the foreground and can’t stand the bright orange-red circle announcing that Bakker is the winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (recognition for this book). You don’t see the latter as I’ve used a dried-up red rose – from a flower tout and has been standing in a beer bottle for the last two weeks on my kitchen table – to cover it.
I was listening to Gnarls Barkley’ “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” tonight. Thought this would be a fitting way to end this post. Goodnight.
Got some bad news this morning
Which in turn made my day
When there’s someone spoke I listened
All of a sudden has less and less to say
Ohh, how could this be?
All this time I’ve lived vicariously
Who’s gonna save my soul now?
Who’s gonna save my soul now?
How will my story ever be told now?
How will my story be told now?