The Detour, By Gerbrand Bakker, trans. David Colmer

Daniel Hahn
Friday 23 March 2012 01:00

The newcomer introduces herself as "Emilie" – not her real name. That we don't learn until the closing pages of this novel; indeed, there's much about her we don't know. We know only that she is newly arrived from Amsterdam, which she left under a cloud (she lost her university job after having an affair with a student); that she has a husband back home; and that there's something wrong. Something serious, but – for the moment – not specified.

Here she is now, in an old farmhouse in Wales, which she's renting for the winter, and where she hopes simply to disappear. "Emilie" is out of her element, a Dutch city girl (though everyone assumes she's German) landing near the foot of Snowdon. She feels empty, and homesick. But it isn't quite homesickness, but nostalgia – what she misses is not another place, but another time.

She has borrowed the name from Emily Dickinson. Her few belongings include the Collected Poems, a biography and a portrait of the poet. Dickinson, whom she regards with something like contempt, was her thesis topic; she sees her as greatly overrated, but also recognises traits of the poet in herself. Emily, too, cloistered herself away, trying to hold back time.

The old farmhouse used to belong to Mrs Evans, lately deceased, and comes fully equipped with geese and sheep belonging to a neighbouring farmer. This is about as much company as Emilie wants, though she forces herself to venture into town to call on the baker, the doctor, the chemist, the hairdresser. She's surprised when a man appears at the house, even more surprised when he stays, and confused to discover she almost likes having him there.

His name is Bradwen. He and his dog were just passing. And he might as well help out – there are physical jobs to be done, and he's far sturdier than she. They develop a way of cohabiting. When he pries too deeply, she brushes him off with an "Ach"; when she's distressed, he soothes her vulnerability with a "There, there". They use these words knowingly, aware there is no adequate English equivalent for one, no Dutch for the other.

In Amsterdam, meanwhile, Emilie's husband has reacted badly to her disappearance leading to a run-in with the police. Before long he and his policeman friend are on the ferry, hoping to track the fugitive down.

Gerbrand Bakker and translator David Colmer won the 2010 Impac Dublin prize with The Twins. Like its predecessor, The Detour is written and translatedwith lapidary precision, perspective and crisp prose; there is emotion and expression, but held back from the writing, which is controlled and full of clean, physical detail, simple and devastating.

Emilie, too, tries to control whatever she can – bringing the wild garden into order, taking pills to manage her pains, clearing the overgrown path, building a shelter to protect the geese – trying, in short, to handle "the situation". But certain things are beyond her control.

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