Sunday 24 March 2013

'The Detour' by Gerbrand Bakker (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 7)

You wouldn't expect many novels on translation prize longlists to be set in Wales (especially when the writer isn't even Welsh), but that's the case with my latest choice from the IFFP longlist.  Today's story takes us to North Wales, in the shadow of Snowdon.  There's a dog, a herd of cows - oh, and some geese...

The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker (translated by David Colmer - from Harvill Secker, US title is Ten Wild Geese)
What's it all about?
The story begins with a figure in an isolated house in North Wales.  A Dutch woman who enjoys her solitude, she appears to be a refugee, a runaway - but from what exactly?  From the start there are hints of sexual misadventures in her former life; more importantly, there are worrying signs of health issues:
"That night she stared at the fire just as she had stared at the water.  She had lit candles and put them on the window sill.  Nagging pain in her back.  Before getting into the bath, she had eaten some bread with cheese and a sweet onion.  Hot meals were too much trouble.  Fruit and vegetables were healthy but, of course, things like that only applied to people who were healthy."
pp.70/1 (Scribe, 2012)
Whatever her troubles, the woman is very clear in her desire to face them by herself, leaving her home country, family and friends, and marooning herself in the middle of nowhere.

It is into this backdrop of solitude then that Bradwen enters her life one day.  He is a young hiker attempting to map out a walking trail across the countryside, and after the woman offers him shelter for the night, he decides to stay on, helping out around the house and running errands for his reclusive host.  It seems that despite her decision to live alone, she does feel a need for male company.
Meanwhile, back in the Netherlands, the woman's husband gradually appears on the scene.  Left bewildered by his wife's disappearance, he initially lashes out, resulting in a trip to the police station.  However, once he finds out a little more about the truth behind his wife's decision to flee, he hires a detective to track her down - so that he can follow her... 

The Detour is a fairly short novel, but it is a skilfully woven story.  We start in the middle of an informational void every bit as empty as the countryside setting.  Gradually though, the writer reveals fragments of information, allowing the reader to piece together parts of the story (even if we never uncover the whole truth).  This style of writing, released in short, terse chapters, has the effect of creating characters who are hard to read, people who have secrets that they are unlikely to divulge in a hurry.
     "Not much snow," the boy said, with his mouth full of fruit cake and his face pressed against the window.  "Maybe at the top.  We have to get off in a minute."
     She didn't say anything.  She would say very little all day.  Her suspicions had been aroused. (p.196)
I'd just like to point out that at that point I had absolutely no idea what that last sentence meant...

Bakker's main protagonist is a fascinating creation, a spiky, almost unlikeable woman.  While she gives her name as Emilie, there are reasons to doubt the veracity of the claim (just as everything she says needs to be taken with a liberal dose of salt).  Before her flight, Emilie was working on her PhD in English Literature.  The topic?  The American poet, Emily Dickinson, with whom our Emilie has a few similarities...

While this may all sound a little bleak, Bakker's novel is interspersed with dry humour, setting off the dark tone of the work nicely.  Emilie is continually mistaken for a German, something she contradicts very sharply (any Scot, Canadian or Kiwi will identify with her pain...), and she also finds it hard to convince people that the injury to her foot was caused by a badger.  You see, they're very shy creatures...

There is so much more I could write about here, more than you would think for such a thin novel.  However, it's probably best to leave you to find out the rest for yourself.  I'd definitely recommend your giving it a try - just don't read it if you're alone in a farmhouse in the middle of winter ;)

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Yes.  It's a most enjoyable work, one which deserves and almost demands a reread.  There's so much going on in terms of plot, style, pacing, characterisation...  I liked it :)

Will it make the shortlist?
I'm not sure - it might be a book which most will like, but few will champion.  It's easy to get enthusiastic about a book only to have other readers fail to see what the fuss is about.  Will it be able to knock off enough of the big guns to make the shortlist?  I'm not convinced...

Right, time to leave Wales.  The next stop is Prague, where we have a meeting with Himmler's brain (apparently, his name is Heydrich...).  Just the first of several longlisted books set during the Second World War; hopefully, I'll have more luck with them than I did with last year's crop...