Jim Morphy casts a critical eye over the latest novel from the award-winning Gerbrand Bakker: the Detour – available now from Harvill Secker.
Gerbrand Bakker’s stunning the Detour begins with a married Dutch lecturer having recently arrived in rural North Wales after fleeing personal drama in her homeland. She has with her little for company apart from a collection of Emily Dickinson’s poems, with its chapters LIFE, NATURE, TIME AND ETERNITY, and LOVE. These headings neatly mirror the themes of the Detour itself, the follow-up to Bakker’s international prize-winning debut, The Twin.
As this slow tale unfolds, we learn that the woman -who calls herself Emilie -may be adrift, but she hasn’t come to Wales to start afresh. She is here to mark time until whatever is coming comes. What follows is a beguiling meditation on regret, grief, loneliness, our connection to our surroundings, and the flicker of hope.
To emphasise, this is a book of the mind not of action. But, half-hidden within the descriptive prose, the plot edges forward, answering the reader’s early questions. We learn that Emilie left Holland following an affair with a young student. After renting a farmland cottage, she plans to occupy herself with a PhD on Dickinson’s work. However, this self-imposed isolation is soon ruptured by a series of dealings with the locals, most centrally a young hiker named Bradwen. The two begin a tender relationship, which offers a slither of light, if likely trouble also.
Awkward encounters with rude farmers, incompetent hairdressers and unbelieving doctors illuminate Emilie’s vain desire to retreat from the real world. And people not present bring further distraction. The stench of the cottage’s previous owner envelops her. Thoughts of her uncle –
The book occasionally cuts to Holland. The exile’s husband strikes up an odd companionship with a local detective, and the two set out to find the missing wife, Agnes. The husband, however, is unable to offer the reader much in the way of explanation – he wants answers himself. The scenes offer light relief, but, ultimately, just ramp up the sense of impending doom for when the drama switches back to Wales. A personal apocalypse seems certain. As we await the strange duo’s arrival, Bakker treats us to a virtuoso performance of bringing together time, landscape and half-thought. The three feed off each other, almost merging with the plot, to create the book’s distinctive atmosphere.
The idea that human truth is best expressed by our fantasies, not our acts, runs through the Detour. Helpfully, Emilie reads a book extract that puts forward this thesis that seems central to her life, past, present and future. However, tantalisingly for the reader, Emilie’s thoughts remain largely out-of-reach. Bakker isn’t simply withholding information; honest self-appraisal appears stuck at the back of Emilie’s mind. But, creeping realisation and occasional enlightenment hit. When it does, it is rarely kind: ‘standing in a pond with water up to my waist, no heavy objects in my pockets. The smell of an old woman in my body. This is it. This is the situation.’
A gardener by trade, Gerbrand Bakker displays an acute feeling for the earthy ground, the grassy hills, the animals, and the subtle changes in the seasons that inhabit Emilie’s small world. Rarely can an author have so successfully placed nature at the centre of a novel. Bakker’s trowel is ingeniously at play here. The book marks the creeping, but unrelenting, passage of time by utilising this same environment. Emilie starts with no clock, watch or phone. For her, time is the slow changing of her surroundings, like the shifting shadows of trees, the dwindling number of geese.
The reader, however, is helped by the narrative’s regular use of dates and months. This sense of passing time and inevitability permeates the novel. Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn, / Indicative that suns go down; / The notice to the startled grass / That darkness is about to pass, as Dickinson writes, and Emilie sees. The protagonist wonders whether the poet spent her entire life trying to hold back time, making it less bearable and less lonely by capturing it in hundreds of poems. Poems captured in the edition she holds so dear. The edition in which the section titled LOVE is very short and the section titled TIME and ETERNITY is very long – a fact that made sad, elusive Emilie cry.
Vague hopes of joy – of the changing of destiny, of a sense of love -come in the sweet words and slight touches between Emilie and Bradwen. Their relationship seems unknowable. A shared understanding between the two of them, and between characters and reader, is never truly reached: ‘What do you see? Emilie asks Bradwen, Awesomely beautiful, thought Bradwen, but didn’t reply.’ The book leaves the reader thinking about what else isn’t said or done. For, when the denouement comes after the long brood, it is sharp and brutal, if not unexpected, and perhaps even a little comforting in its logic.
A final note of appreciation must go to the book’s translator, David Colmer. When turning one of Dickinson’s poems into Dutch, Emilie decides to shift the meaning of a line in order to mimic the original’s style, believing ‘rhythm is most important here’. Colmer appears to work by this maxim, miraculously retaining Gerbrand Bakker’s unique style and sensibility, in the process helping to confirm Bakker as a leading light of new European fiction.