I promised you a detour today after our wanderings around Amsterdam yesterday (metaphorically) as we continue to ‘go Dutch’ this week. ‘The Detour’ by Gerbrand Bakker, who aptly lives in Amsterdam, is a novel that I have been meaning to read ever since I saw William review it (much better than I am about to the swine) and the premise immediately caught my attention, it has only taken me a year and a half to get around to it. What appealed to me at the time was that it was a tale of an outsider who moves into the rural unknown and there is something I really like about books set on farms in the middle of nowhere, or places on the periphery of a village or in a rural setting as well as loving books about outsiders. Combine the two and you are going to get a book that I will most definitely want to read, at some point, if only there were a guide to books of such ilk.
We all know what it is like to need to escape from our lives, even if we might never actually do it at some point I am sure we have all thought about it to varying extremes. Emilie has thought about it and then acted on it as she has left her life, husband, family and job, behind in Amsterdam and rented a remote farm in rural Wales, somewhere in Snowdonia to be precise. Emilie, as we read on, seems to be hiding. She has no interest in the nearest villagers (wisely in some cases) and when a young boy injures himself and looks for a bit of shelter she couldn’t be more resistant to it if she tried. The question we as the reader want to know is why Emilie has done this. Slowly (and very subtly) but surely Bakker tells us.
It is incredibly difficult to say too much more without spoiling what is a beautifully crafted and delivered slow burning and subtle novel with a sense of mystery at its heart. It is one of those books that very quietly takes you by the hand and slowly but surely grips you as you go on.
What I found very interesting was the way that Bakker gives Emilie and her situation a sense of dual mystery – I don’t mean mystery in a murder mystery way, she is just an enigma. The first layer is, of course, why on earth Emilie has left Amsterdam for this hidden away life, the second mystery though is Emilie herself because as the novel progresses she, and of course Bakker, hold all the details of her life as close to her chest as possible. Emilie is a mystery within the mystery if you know what I mean.
“For a few nights now the rushing stream no longer calmed her: noises – creaking boards, the shuffling of what she hoped were small animals, and an almost unbearably plaintive cry from the woods – kept her awake, and awake she started thinking. She got wound up again, defiant and angry.”
As I was reading on, with this woman who is almost a recluse and a past that eluded me, I was reminded of Evie Wyld’s latest (and stunning) novel ‘All The Birds, Singing’. Yet whilst both are equally stunning in their atmosphere and dark sense of menace they take their novels in very different directions, even though I have just realised that they both have the plot twist of a stranger moving in. Whist Wyld alternates with the present and then the past (going backwards), Bakker alternates between the present for Emilie and also with her husband back in Amsterdam as her disappearance, which he wasn’t so surprised about, starts to nag at him and he decides to look for her and in doing so uncovers more of Emilie’s life including one strand that I never saw coming and was a huge impact in the novel.
There I will stop with the plot, and indeed the comparisons to Wyld (which I couldn’t not have popped in this post as I have read them within a relatively short space of one another) apart from the fact that it too could be one of my books of the year, because I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for anyone. Suffice to say that the book surprised me, especially with its subtle nature which I admired it all the more for. In terms of a book set in the middle of nowhere, and a winter in Snowdonia is painted vividly for the reader, about outsiders and the grind of rural life I couldn’t have asked for more.
‘The Detour’ won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year and having read it you can easily see why. Bakker creates a story that is subtle and slow burning yet all at once brimming with a sense of mystery and menace. It is also a book that will linger on with the reader long after you have read it and, if you are like me, long after it devastates you with both its prose and most importantly its story. A much recommended book.
Have any of you read ‘The Twin’ by Bakker? As I am desperate to read it now but am slightly worried that this being a later book it might be more accomplished? Is that a bad/lazy assumption to make? I tell you what though, it is books like this that remind me I need to be a bit more like (the legend that is) Stu of WinstonsDad Blog and read much, much more translated fiction.