Gerbrand Bakker’s calm, shattering novel was first published in 2010, the same year he became the first Dutch writer to win the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the world’s richest literary prize, for his 2008 debut The Twin. The Detour reaches our shores courtesy of an immaculate English translation by David Colmer (Bakker speaks English, which always helps).
Our protagonist is a literature professor who has just abandoned her husband in Rotterdam for a rented farmhouse in the Welsh countryside. Her motive for doing so is obscure at first—she says little and the narrative is third person—though it appears to be tied to an affair she had with a student that, once discovered by her husband, prompted him to him set fire to her office at the university.
A month after she arrives, a young man named Bradwen Jones appears, explaining that he’s mapping a new long-distance walking path that runs through the property. She tells him her name is Emilie, though we suspect this isn’t the case given the combination of her secretiveness and the fact that her academic specialty happens to be Emily Dickinson (the local garden centre is called “Dickson’s”). As he won’t reach his destination before dark, “Emilie” offers Bradwen a place to stay. He accepts it, then stays for months.
Emilie finds she’s glad of the company, especially given that the locals, who assume she’s German, have proven themselves an insular lot. When she’s bitten by a badger, everyone, including the chainsmoking local doctor she consults, declares this “impossible.” Later she encounters the doctor again, at the hairdresser’s, and is shocked to hear him freely share his patients’ medical information and refer to her as “the badger lady.” Equally discomfiting is Rhys Jones, her foul, stalkerish landlord, who has a habit of letting himself into the house, even when she’s taking a bath.
At the farm is a flock of ten white geese that Rhys Jones tells her she’s expected to care for. Though she builds them a shelter, to her dismay their numbers steadily drop off as the weeks pass by (the U.S. version of the novel is called Ten White Geese). The unsettling, ominous feeling this gives carries over into the farmhouse itself, where Emilie finds olfactory remnants of the owner who recently died there: “There was a lingering smell of old woman around the sink and cupboards, an odour that, in the weeks she had lived here, she had gradually come to associate with herself.”
Bradwen, who Emilie refers to as “the boy,” seems not to mind her minimalist approach to conversation and he soon settles in; he has an instinct about her. He’s more like a mother than a lover: cooking their meals, doing the shopping and tending the grounds with the quiet competence of someone much older.
Back in the Netherlands, another unlikely friendship has formed, this one between Emilie’s husband and the police officer who arrested him for trying to burn down her office. After hiring a private detective to trace Emilie’s whereabouts, they set out together with the intention of bringing her back.
Emilie’s reason for leaving eventually becomes clear, though Bakker takes his time confirming or denying our suspicions and even throws down a few red herrings along the way. Bakker is a gardener, and while actual gardening is everywhere in the book, his beautifully transparent writing style also demonstrates the kind of methodical patience one associates with the trade: as one thing blooms he’s content to prune and let other things put down roots. Such is Bakker’s craft that the ending, when it comes, is no less powerful or disturbing for our having anticipated it.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor