The Detour


Last year New Finnish Grammar was the novel that I just didn’t quite see as the masterpiece so many others claimed it to be – this year, it seems, it’s The Detour (so you may as well install it as the favourite for the I.F.F.P. immediately). Bakker’s already an award winning writer in translation – his first novel, The Twin, won the Impac Award. The follow up has been widely praised – including by John Burnside ( a writer I greatly admire, and not just because he’s from Fife) in The Guardian.

I can, of course, see why Burnside liked it. It begins intriguingly enough with a Dutch woman (‘Emilie’) renting a small cottage within sight of Mount Snowdon. The previous owner was an old woman who left no obvious heirs apart from ten white geese who seem to automatically become the responsibility of the renter (In the US the novel has been published as Ten White Geese). She has clearly cut herself off form her previously life entirely – that is apart from a volume of Emily Dickinson’s poems (hence the alias). Rather than wishing to start again she craves only solitude, something which is interrupted by the arrival of a local farmer who grazes sheep on the land whom she immediately detests, and then later by a young hiker to whom she offers a bed for the night. There are also visits to the local baker, doctor and hairdresser – their friendliness and curiosity alike rebuffed.

There are, of course, reasons for this, as begin to become apparent when Bakker shifts the narrative to ‘the husband’. At first he assumes his wife has left after an affair with a student has been discovered, but his anger turns to concern when he suspects she may be ill. Eventually he goes in search of her, accompanied by the policeman who arrested him when he set fire to a university office (see earlier anger).

What I liked about the novel was its tone, which could fairly be said to be bleak but not in a nihilistic or cynical way: it was story told with a kind of stoic sadness. ‘Emilie’s’ contrasting moods – one moment energetic and driven, the next full of lassitude – seemed completely convincing. Bakker also uses ‘Emilie’s’ uncle well as a counterpoint, both his inept suicide attempt and his efforts to keep going through woodwork. The family’s view of him goes some way to explaining her disappearance. I particularly loved the way Bakker used the badger attack (while sun bathing ‘Emilie’ is bitten by a badger). Any time she told someone they didn’t believe her – badgers are too shy, badgers are nocturnal… I took this to reflect her fear of how people might react to her real illness. Not necessarily that they wouldn’t believe her but that they wouldn’t give her ownership of what had happened to her.

The geese, on the other hand, I found a little too metaphorical. Soon after she arrives geese begin to disappear. She tries, but fails, to protect them. Luckily there are still some left to join in with the final scene. The geese were so clearly a powerful symbol of something…but what? I’m afraid I couldn’t see the flock for the birds…

I also found it hard to buy into the relationships. Certainly the farmer is a little intrusive, but her hatred is maniacal. Maybe she simply wants to be alone…unless of course a handsome young hiker appears…a young man who then proceeds to look after her for no clear reason. This friendship is only outdone by that of the husband and the policeman, so unlikely that even one of the other characters feels he has to point it out. That they strike up a friendship in the interrogation room is a little strange, but that the he drops everything to travel to Wales with the husband at New Year is really stretching it.

And I haven’t even mentioned the protagonist’s love of Emily Dickinson.

None of these things make The Detour a bad novel – I enjoyed reading it and found it moving in places – but I do think they disqualify it from being a great novel. No doubt I’ll be proved wrong again!

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2 Responses to “The Detour”

  1. Alex in Leeds Says:

    Hi, found your blog via a comment on Tony’s Reading List and have been happily catching up on your IFFP related posts. I have to say that I am with you on The Detour, I was enjoying the tone and rhythm of it up to about halfway/two-thirds through and then the female voice which I’d had niggling doubts about just stopped seeming believable to me and the relationships unravelled all over the place.

    • 1streading Says:

      Glad to see I’m not the only who found it unconvincing – clearly the judges liked it better than me as it’s on the shortlist!

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