Gerbrand Bakker’s The Detour (tr. David Colmer; US title: Ten White Geese) is a short, odd but captivating book which brings a European literary sensibility to rural Wales. While reading it I struggled to think of other novels I’ve read which are set in Wales: Kingsley Amis’s wildly overrated The Old Devils, perhaps, and part of Patrick McGrath’s brilliant Asylum. About the latter, one unhappy Amazon reviewer said “[McGrath] seems to suffer from an extreme form of xenophobia centered on the Welsh and they are described in this book variously as: lacking in warmth towards strangers, wheedly-voiced, suspicious, dour, sly, crotch rubbing, and animal-like in behaviour.” Bakker’s book is kinder: all crotch-rubbing is consensual.
The detour of the title is one made by a woman who calls herself Emilie, a lecturer in translation studies in Amsterdam who is also writing a thesis on Emily Dickinson. She flees her home after her husband discovers that, in the words of a notice posted around the university, she is a “heartless Bitch” who “screws around” with a first-year student. On her way to Ireland via Hull, she stops in north-west Wales, hires a cottage, and stays there. She has, however, another reason for her departure that her husband doesn’t know about.
To describe The Detour as a comedy would not be quite right: it’s too muted and mysterious for that. Yet there is a wryness, a twinkle, underlying the details throughout, such as the suspicious locals (“Are you German?” “No, not at all”), the unromantic landscape descriptions (“It was a grey day and Hull was hideous”) and the GP who smokes in his surgery and argues with the patient. This last is part of another element running through the book, of doubt being cast on what we are being told. Emilie, lying naked on the rocks outside her cottage, is bitten on the foot by a badger. She attends for medical treatment. “Impossible,” says the doctor: “Liar.” She tells others, such as her landlord, Rhys Jones. “Impossible,” he says. “Badgers are shy animals.” What are we to make of this? Do we believe the narrative, or its characters?
There are other mysteries. Why did Emilie come here at all? Why does she lie naked on the rocks? What is the significance of “her beloved Emily Dickinson,” whose poems and portrait she has brought to Wales with her, but whose life she seems increasingly determined to divert from: “a bird of a woman who made herself small,” with a life of “withdrawing further and further, writing poetry as if her life depended on it, and dying”? Where Emily “would have sat inside coughing and sighing, writing about bright spring days and the first bee,” Emilie decides to get out and do it: making a home for the geese she has inherited as tenant of her cottage; pollarding trees. She has some help with all this from a young man, Bradwen, who stops by while walking, and stays. Unlike Rhys Jones, whom she finds creepy and intimidating, Emilie is drawn to Bradwen, and an erotic tingle runs through the pages where she observes him as they work together. At first it looks like a harking back to the affair with her student. But it may be that Emilie is drawn not to Bradwen’s beauty so much as his youth, his vitality, and his health. In addition, Bradwen, like Emilie, doesn’t seem to fit into a locality that is half League of Gentlemen, half All Quiet on the Orient Express.
Emilie underlines a passage in Dickinson’s biography: “since nothing is as real as ‘thought and passion’, our essential human truth is expressed by our fantasies, not our acts.” She walks a line between the two, and one of the most striking scenes in the book is her recollection of a fantastical act by her uncle. One day in November he “walked into the pond, the pond in the large front garden of the hotel he worked at. The water refused to come any higher than his hips.” He was “so far gone that he hardly realised that hip-deep water wasn’t enough to drown in. Incapable of simply toppling over.” When she first stops in Wales, at the end of her detour, she thinks of him because
she sensed how vulnerable people are when they have no idea what to do next, how to move forward or back. That a shallow hotel pond can feel like a standstill, like marking time with the bank – no start or end, a circle – as a past, present and unlimited future. And because of that, she also thought she understood him just standing there and not trying to get his head underwater. A standstill.
This comic, troubling image of stasis gives way, as the book progresses, to something like a hectic pace, as Emilie’s husband and parents in the Netherlands come to terms with her disappearance, and take steps to bring her back. This page-turning quality, the low-key eroticism and humour, and unexpected regular appearances from Tesco and Channel 4’s A Place in the Sun, all make this book quite a … variation on what you might expect.