Gerbrand Bakker: The Detour / Ten White Geese

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.

Gerbrand Bakker: The Detour (UK edition)

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.

Gerbrand Bakker: Ten White Geese (US edition)

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.


  1. Glad you liked it. I think it’s a fantastic novel, like a too-cold blast of water from a mountain stream, refreshing and, well, chilling, in both senses of the word. Good to point out how comic it is, but I think possibly I found more in it to move me than you did. For me it’s a profound book about… but there you run into the problem of how to talk about it. It’s a novel that works not by discussing its themes, but by skirting them. By comparison, I’m reading Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being at the moment, and that very much flags up what it’s about, page by page. Any true discussion of The Detour would necessarily involve spoilers. The best I think you can do is press it on people you think would enjoy it.

    I reviewed it for the TLS (not available online, alas) and I finished the review by saying: “There is a kind of human behaviour when someone wants to show you another person, or people, doing something, but doesn’t want them to be disturbed: they touch you on the arm and silently point. That’s what reading this humble, compassionate book is like.”

    Also, Welsh books: have you read any Niall Griffiths? Most set either in Wales or Liverpool. I’d recommend ‘Stump’ as an entry point. Also Joe Dunthorne’s two novels, ‘Submarine’ and ‘Wild Abandon’ – the second a rather lovely comedy set on a Welsh commune. And AL Kennedy’s ‘Everything You Need’ is set on a remote Welsh island that I’m guessing is Bardsey (keep on heading west from ‘The Detour’ and it’s at the end of the Llyn peninsular.)

    In fact, my parents live about 15 minutes drive from the farmhouse in The Detour, and, although I’m not intimately familiar with any of its geography, I did very much respond to the sense of place.

  2. One of the things that I liked best about The Twin was the way that Bakker deliberately built a structure around a central idea that he refused to directly describe. The title of this book, and elements of your review, suggest the same technique is at play in this one — I look forward to it.

    And given your enthusiasm some years back for Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl (enthusiasm that I share), it perhaps deserves a mention and link to your review.

  3. Raymond Williams grew up in Llanfihangel Crucorney in the Brecon Beacons and his novel Border Country which is essentially an autobiography has a much more authentic feel to it than On the Black Hill which I think is a bit `worked on’ and phoney. It’s an interesting point of comparison with John McGahern’s Memoir as both books are about difficult relationships between fathers and sons.
    The writer Byron Rogers offers a wry view of life in modern Wales in his essays and his biography The Man who went into the West about `the Ogre of Wales’ R S Thomas is one of the funniest and most affectionate biographies I’ve read.

    1. Serendipitously enough I spotted the RS Thomas biography on the shelf of my local charity shop this morning. Even from the introduction you can tell it’s a sprightly take on the form.

  4. I liked the Hull quote more than I expected for such a simple sentence. But then simplicity is often a mark of good style.

    Refreshing and chilling I note Jonathan says, tempting words. I’ll add this to the pile, and check out Stump that he recommended also.

  5. The Twin was a book that I subjectively loved and objectively admired. A reader’s ideal combination. ‘What are we to make of this? Do we believe the narrative, or its characters?’ A reader’s ideal questions. I was predisposed to read the next Gerbrand Bakker. I’m primed now.

    By the bye, that The Twin, a debut novel, won the Impac strengthens my belief that the Impac is the most relevant & interesting of the many literary prize schemes. Nominations from libraries all over the world. A diverse panel of international judges. Discerning shortlists, always with translated titles & usually with surprises. The roll-call of winners is a list of world-class writing and writers (Petterson, Houellebecq, Müller, Marías, Malouf), sometimes little-known to ordinary readers like myself until the Impac brought them to general attention. A rewarding prize for readers.

  6. “Do we believe the narrative, or its characters?” You know, this sentence is just… something I never pick up on. I’m often bothered by authenticity in novels, but I never seem to pick up on the general honesty or reliability of the actual characters (or an unreliable narrative). I’ll have to keep this in mind when I get around to reading The Twin – I’m sure it will cast the book in an interesting light.

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