As usual, all my formatting was lost when I copied and pasted this review in - the three lines of spacing between different paragraphs were erased, and replaced with mysterious asterisks...
Sorry about the places where consecutive words are joined up.
The Detour - Gerbrand Bakker.
Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer
Harvill Secker £12.99
Reviewed by Leyla Sanai
Gerbrand Bakker’s debut, The Twin, won the International IMPAC Dublin Award and gathered critical acclaim in the media and from the distinguished likes of J.M. Coetzee. The Detour, his follow-up, is similarly restrained in tone, but the surface tranquility masks an undercurrent of unease, the sense of impending doom gliding under the calm surface like a crocodile.
Emilie is a married Dutch lecturer in Translation Studies, doing a PhD on the American poet Emily Dickinson. She had an affair with one of her students but the fling soured: ‘[She] thought about him sitting in front of her later, amongst the other students, one of many, with the face of a sulking child. A spiteful egotistical child, and as ruthless as children can be.’
Emilie fled from Holland to Wales, and the novel opens with her in a rented rural farmhouse, her whereabouts unknown to her husband or family. Remembering an uncle she loved, who made a half-hearted suicide attempt and then tried to escape his demons by immersing himself in activity, Emilie similarly tries to ward off despair by keeping busy, industriously tending the land. But it is soon apparent to the reader that the affair was not her only reason for running away. Something is happening to her body, and Emilie is perhaps unwilling to become a victim in a similar way to the way she unsympathetically perceives Dickinson, who, despite her isolation, Emilie believes wrote clingy letters signed with self derogatory nicknames, and induced guilty irritation in at least one correspondent. Emilie’s solitude is interrupted by the arrival of a stranger who ends up staying.
The chapters are very short, the writing is concise and precise, and the underlying tension makes for addictive reading. The use of the impersonal third person -he, she – with few names, adds to the brooding atmosphere. Bakker’s experience working on nature films (as a subtitler), and as a gardener, imbue the descriptions of the natural world with a glorious authenticity.
Intriguing parallels are suggested. Trying to recapture her sensual memories, Emilie lies naked on a rock. A badger catches the scent of her groin and is attracted to her. She repels it and is bitten. On four separate occasions when Emilie tells people about the bite, they declare it’s impossible because ‘badgers are shy creatures.’ Bakker maybe using the badger as an allegory for the supposedly innocent student, attracted by Emilie’s sexual availability, turning nasty on rejection, and deemed blameless by observers.
Another allegorical reference is to the unknown predator which is slowly killing the geese on Emilie’s land, and which mirrors the insidious march of the cancer devouring Emilie’s body. Yet Bakker stays on the right side of the dividing line between the dark and the bleak. The wonderful translation allows his subtle humour full rein: while Emilie chases the geese to try and herd them into their protective shelter, ‘the sheep in the adjoining field remained unmoved, most of them grazed on calmly.’ On TV, the shallow values of Pop Idol and its ilk are pilloried when a girl with ‘a magnificent, clear voice’ is dismissed because she’s fat, while on a property programme, ‘an agitated couple walked around the screen with the woman shouting ‘I’d rather die than give up my cats’, and ‘a spoilt bitch’ exclaims ‘this ticks all the boxes!’
The peripheral characters, too, are sources of amusement – the gently probing shop staff, who Emilie stonewalls, the chain-smoking GP with an odd idea of patient confidentiality, and, best of all, a grotesque farmer who is intrusive, boorish, gluttonous and lecherous and induced a frisson of delighted repulsion in this reader. The only possible negative I could eke out was that, as a woman, I wondered whether Emilie’s frequent and needless shedding of clothes, even in cold rooms, was a come-on to potential film rights buyers -Bakker’s debut is already being adapted for the big screen. But this trivial and sceptical question dissolves into insignificance, such is the allure of this disquieting and unobtrusively compelling novel.