The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker

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The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: This is a haunting and strange story of isolation and inner turmoil ... and geese.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 240 Date: March 2012
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 9781846556395

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Gerbrand Bakker's Dutch novel, The Detour translated by David Colmer, is a very odd story indeed. Mostly set in Snowdonia, the book tells the story of a Dutch woman, who gives her name as Emilie, who rents a remote farm. She's clearly on the run from something, perhaps an affair with a student at the university where she was researching the works of Emily Dickinson, but it increasingly becomes clear that this is only part of the story. Certainly her husband and parents back in the Netherlands have no clue where she has gone - or why. Once these details are established, the book takes a turn to the seriously odd which is more of a full blooded journey rather than a mere 'detour'.

Why do the geese in the adjoining field keep disappearing? Why does Emilie attract the attentions of a rabid badger? Who is the strange young rambler who enters into the story and ends up staying with Emilie? How does the husband's private investigator track her down and what on Earth is going on with the strange relationship that the husband develops with the gay Dutch police officer? How does the local doctor manage to flout the law and chain smoke through consultations with patients? These are all valid questions, only a few of which you will find an answer to here.

The other thing to note is that it is a very styled book. The chapters are short (Bakker manages to get an impressive 60 chapters in a comparatively short book) and the sentences are often equally brief. The dialogue reminded me of Harold Pinter in that characters seem to talk at and across each other rather than communicate with each other. The effect of these styles is that the book is somewhat cold. Certainly it conveys isolation and inner turmoil and adds to the strange turns of events, but it's not one that draws the reader in and leads to a coldness.

At this point it is worth confessing that the amount that I know about reclusive, American, poet Emily Dickinson is contained in this sentence. I make that point because I rather suspect that there are a whole lot of clever references and influences about her that are being used here that I'm afraid, if they are there, went somewhat over my head. If you are au fait with her life and works, then I have a feeling that you might get a lot more enjoyment out of this novel. The themes of nature and death as well as the eccentricity of the poet herself are, I suspect, deeply referenced in Emilie's own views and situation.

There's no doubt that Bakker effectively evokes a desolate and creepy tone to the story and it does make you want to read on to discover what might have happened to Emilie and what will happen when her husband tracks her down. Imagine Little Britain, without the humour, written by Stephen King with added geese and you won't be far off. Just don't expect a whole lot of answers here.

If you are a connoisseur of Emily Dickinson or just a fan of seriously strange stories, then this will be right up your street and is worth a gander (sorry, couldn't resist!). I'm afraid it did rather leave me with the thought 'what on Earth was that all about?', although it did retain my interest throughout and it is strangely compelling.

We would like to thank the kind people at Harvill Secker for this strange detour into Dutch fiction.

For more atmospheric creepiness, then check out A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside.

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Buy The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker at


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