The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker (trans. David Colmer). Harvill Secker. 240pp
In 2010, Gerbrand Bakker’s debut novel, The Twin, received accolades for its quietly powerful prose and the astute eye it cast on the relationships between its characters. The Detour shows a few obvious similarities: it too takes place on a remote farm and concerns people whose lives have been altered by a tragic event. Like its predecessor it moves at a stubbornly slow pace, revealing its secrets only gradually, and never entirely.
Despite these parallels, it soon becomes apparent that The Detour is much more than a safe rehash of a proven formula. Instead it takes The Twin’s most successful qualities and applies them to new territory. While The Twin depicts a man rooted in a family that has oppressed him his whole life, the protagonist of The Detour is a Dutch woman who has just severed all ties with her former life and moved to an isolated cottage on the coast of Wales. She does not give anyone her real name, but calls herself Emilie. We learn a few details: she has been involved in an affair, a husband is left behind at home.
It soon becomes clear, however, that Emilie’s motives for defecting are more complex than these surface circumstances suggest. It is not shame or guilt that have caused her to seek solitude, nor does she seem to harbor any ill will towards her husband. No; the affair is a symptom of a deeper crisis. In her own words, she has come to “a standstill” in her life, a paralysis that manifests itself as a curious state of deliberate matter-of-factness coupled with violent emotion. Her demeanor is mechanical and impassive, but conceals a palpitating heart. She is full of sensations: the smells of weeds, her house and her body, the texture of crushed slate, even the scent of the damp fields. By choosing this naked coastal countryside, she has stripped her life to its essence: in order to see and feel what remains when everything superfluous—her marriage, her job, her city—is radically jettisoned.
The idea of essence—of simplicity—is at the core of The Detour. Bakker uses only words that are essential. One is reminded of a detailed screenplay: a set of instructions for actors, or readers, to make the action come to life in their minds. Everyday tasks are minutely described, indeed every movement and sensation is recorded. We know what direction the smoke from Emilie’s cigarette is blowing. We know exactly in what order she does things when she makes coffee, or takes a bath, or walks in the fields. The sentences follow one another with the hypnotic cadence of an incantation. It is astonishing, and a testament to Bakker’s skill, how complete a visualization of each scene is possible using only the simplest of words:
She glanced back and saw the hairdresser standing outside her shop, one arm crossed under her breasts with the hand tucked in her armpit, a cigarette in the other hand, staring fixedly at the perfumery across the road, her bleached hair thin in the slowly rising cloud of sunlit cigarette smoke.
Considering on how modest a scale the story’s action transpires—involving walks, gardening, small excursions into town—the novel is immensely gripping. Throughout it there are clear hints that we are advancing towards a climax. Emilie’s stay in the house—the duration of the novel—lasts barely two months, November and December. At intervals we are told the date, dramatically positioned at the end of paragraphs or chapters (“It was 18 November”). Rather than just marking the progression of time, the implication is that it is becoming scarce, and that this situation will only be supportable for a little while longer before a critical choice must be made.
Compounding this impression is the fact that Emilie’s physical well-being is deteriorating. She begins taking more and more painkillers, then she asks the doctor in Caernarfon, the nearby town, for a stronger prescription. Meanwhile a young man has turned up and settled into the house with her. She generally seems grateful for his presence, though he can’t fix what is wrong with her and she knows it. The novel’s title implies that Emilie is going somewhere, but is pausing, during the two months she spends in the house, on the way to her destination. She rests at the edge of a precipice—there are still a few things for her to do, but once they are dispatched with she’ll have to complete the journey.
Puncturing Emilie’s suffering are moments of absurd humor, largely to do with the inhabitants of Caernarfon. These country folk and Emilie largely regard one other with bemused disbelief, neither party particularly concerned with what the other thinks of them. Nature, which is everywhere in The Detour, also adds a regenerative energy whose impact offsets the sickness in Emilie’s body. She has chosen this place not just because of its isolation but because nature offers a vast tactile universe whose gifts—wind, water, grass, stone—are generous and inexhaustible.
Most importantly, the character of Emilie does not inspire pity. She is portrayed neither as likeable nor as unlikeable. Either would be completely beside the point: we have to take her for what she is. In one poignant scene, she stands immobile in the middle of a shallow pool and watches “time passing in the rotation of the long shadows of the trees, the arrival of a school of tiny fish at her toes and their departure, and the appearance of five sheep next to the standing stone.” Perhaps her time at the house allows her to come to terms with the fact that no matter how still she stands, she cannot keep time from slipping through her fingers. What she has will have to do. Only when she accepts this certainty is she able to relax, even to smile.
At the same time, Bakker avoids allowing his readers to draw any definitive conclusions about Emilie. There is always an opacity to her motives or the way she relates to others, a lack of clarity about her desires. It is especially this ambivalence that makes The Detour such a challenging and sophisticated work. Bakker excels at leaving provocative gaps in the text that demand sober and earnest reflection on the reader’s part. The Detour raises questions of a profound nature—questions that surface sooner or later in any life—and it does so with a poise and sensitivity that is second to none.
Mona Gainer-Salim is a student of literature and illustrator. She lives in Vienna.
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