The Detour, by Gerbrand Bakker (trans. David Colmer), Vintage. That is quite a cover, isn’t it? Beautiful colours, and all those not-quite-identical geese, with the thin detail of a telephone wire in the background. What I especially like is that all the geese have their heads up, except for one in the centre, second row from front. Its neck is beautifully curved, its eye is closed, as it preens the base of its neck. A wonderful accident of photography, but one that is completely necessary (just like the Dude’s rug) at tying the whole together. But enough of the cover, eh? What about the pages nesting (ha) within?
The Detour is (and I am only too aware that I say this too often) my favourite read of the year so far. A Dutch woman, calling herself Emilie, has rented a farm in rural Wales, under the very shadow of Mount Snowdon. We don’t know why she is there, but it is clear that she is not used to being alone. The house comes with a flock of geese, and something is selectively picking them off. Emilie finds it very hard to emote with the geese, as we all might. In many ways, this book has strong similarities with my favourite book of 2013, All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, but from this point they diverge strongly. A young man (she calls him boy, but we never really know how old she is) turns up. He is mapping a new trail, and there is a footpath going through Emilie’s path. He stays the night, and then stays longer. I’m almost bursting to tell you what happens, but really don’t want to spoil the experience.
It is the writing which really chimes for me. There is a brittle quality about it, a feeling that you are just about to burst into tears but never quite getting there. A detachment full of yearning, and it had a considerable impact on my own mood for long spells after reading. That has to be the answer to what a good book is; it makes you feel something differently. Or think about something differently. This is the sort of book that you will want to read in swathes of pages, until you simply can’t take any more and must put it down and rest. The Detour isn’t long (230 pages), but is long enough for you to lose yourself to the narrative utterly.
I’d like to leave you with two excerpts. For this first one you will need to know that the BBC has a program called Escape to the Country, where some awful looking people help some other awful people to find their ‘dream’ home in the countryside by showing them three houses that aren’t what they were looking for. It is odd, but quite compelling at the same time. Emilie enjoys watching it:
‘This ticks all the boxes!’ exclaimed a spoilt bitch. Even though she and her spoilt husband had a budget of eight hundred thousand pounds, their house-hunting just wouldn’t gel. He wanted ‘contemporary’ and she wanted ‘character features’. Sort it out yourselves, for God’s sake, she thought, and don’t bother us with it. ‘This doesn’t do it for me,’ said the husband. ‘Not at all.’ She groaned. Bradwen brought her a glass of white wine without further comment. She didn’t notice him until he was right next to her. He’d crept up on his L and R stockinged feet. Fish, he thought. He’s taking good care of me. The boy crept back out of the room. He hadn’t taken off his new hat. The right side of her face was glowing from the heat of the stove.
I’d say that this is an excellent example of the humour present in The Detour. It is dry, it is sardonic, and it feels very real. The next extract is the first paragraph of the book. There are some beautifully evoked descriptions of landscape throughout the book, and in this opening one I really feel the dew that Bakker doesn’t mention but has to be there. I think that praise should be heaped on the translator, David Colmer, for bringing this novel to our attention, and for creating this masterfully wrought facsimile.
Early one morning she saw the badgers. They were near the stone circle she had discovered a few days earlier and wanted to see at dawn. She had always found thought of them as peaceful, shy and somehow lumbering animals, but they were fighting and hissing. When they noticed her they ambled off into the flowering gorse. There was a smell of coconut in the air. She walked back along the path you could find only by looking into the distance, a path whose existence she had surmised from rusting kissing gates, rotten stiles and the odd post with a symbol presumably meant to represent a hiker. The grass was untrodden.
There are so many wonderful moments in this book, but they are all integral to the weave of the novel, so I didn’t choose them for you. You should go out, buy a copy, and read them for yourself. It won’t change your life, but it will do something. Even now, a week after reading, when I think of the book I get a hollow feeling under my solar plexus, like homesickness but different.
Winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize
Winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award