28 August 2012

The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker

Thoughts and Reflections
I had never heard of this book, which had recently been given to me. I started it immediately, not being particularly far or involved in the other book I was reading. Coming down with a cold and staying home from work for two days provided the perfect time frame for this book. Some gloomy weather outside further set the scene.

This book is about a Dutch women who attempts to escape to a rural village in Wales from her life in Holland. I found the book somewhat confusing at first. The author alluded to events that the reader yet knew nothing about. However, the confusion was not in the least discouraging, rather I found it peeked my curiousity.

The protagonist is struggling emotionally, but the reader is yet to discover why or how deeply she is struggling. Slowly through the pages and through glimpses into the actions of her husband in Holland, the reader learns what has happened and why the woman fled Holland.

Her story is sad and the book is set in a slow moving meander through her days of escape/exile. I wondered constantly about the permanency of her escape. Why did she choose an old farm house in rural Wales? Why did she shun the locals, whilst working hard to establish a beautiful garden at the house she was only renting? She did no work and seemed unconcerned about her financial situation. She was using up the firewood and seemed to make no movements to gather more wood or arrange other heating. Yet she worked tirelessly at building a rose garden, complete with pathway and arches. This mix of permanence and the temporary exists throughout the novel in nearly every action of the woman.

The woman was a scholar of Emily Dickinson and was writing a PhD thesis on the poet when she suddenly fled from Holland. Dickinson is often alluded to and the Dutch woman seems to struggle to understand the life of Dickinson. Personally, I know little to nothing about Emily Dickinson, other than that she was an American poet. Through this novel, I learned that she was a recluse and stuck to her garden. In many ways, the protagonist, in her crisis, begins mimicking the life of Dickinson, embracing isolation and spending her days in her garden. She even provides her alias as Emily.

While staying at the farmhouse, the woman encounters a young man, who is hiking around the region. He then stays at the house with the woman for number of weeks. I found this character to be very interesting and confusing. I couldn't understand why he stayed with this woman, who was so emotionally unstable. She was older than him and her burden seemed heavy. Gradually, he begins to take care of her, doing the shopping, gardening, cooking. Furthermore, the story reveals that he is the son of the woman's neighbour, a man which she deeply dislikes. I don't understand what the purpose of having the boy and the neighbour related? The author gives no details as to the history of the boy and the neighbour, such as why they were estranged? Only glimpses of the boy's history are referenced, never giving a clear picture of him, his motivation for helping the woman in a nearly servant like role, or his relationship with his father. I can only guess that having lost his mother and Mrs Evans, an elderly woman who was the deceased owner of the house the Dutch woman was renting, he cared for the Dutch woman as he would have cared for his dying mother and Mrs Evans. At the end of the story, he simply ambles off down the road, continuing his journey. A strange comment at the end, suggesting that this detour was a dead end, a waste of time. Perhaps it was. Perhaps he would have been better off never having stopped at the Dutch woman's house. Yet, perhaps it wasn't a dead end. Perhaps the time he spend there was worth more than nothing. Who can tell...

Strangely, though it is the woman that seems to be intentionally withdrawing and mimicking the isolation of Emily Dickinson, they boy seemed be more similar to Dickinson than the woman. Dickinson withdrew into isolation after a series of deaths of loved ones. In her depression, she withdrew from society, isolation that lasted until her own death. At the end of this novel, the reader learns that Bradwen had survived the death of two women for whom he was very close: the previous owner of the house the Dutch woman now occupied and his own mother. He too seemed to be withdrawing from society, becoming the lonely traveler.

The Dutch woman's body was a recurring motif. She regularly removed her clothes and lay naked, often falling asleep. My guess is that this was an attempt to return to innocence or become clean and childlike. She bathes often, trying to wash away the smell of an old woman that she continues to smell on herself. Her attempts are never successful and the smell forever returns, as though she is becoming old or decaying. She is acutely aware of her body, yet takes such poor care of it. She smokes and drinks and begins to take painkillers in an attempt to numb her body and mind. Her health is extremely poor and she faints on a number of occasions. She is unable to keep food down, nor is she able to walk or hike or do any physical labour for any length of time. I struggled to understand how she was in such poor health. Could an emotional shock cause such strong physical problems? She is eventually repulsed by smoking, but only after she sleeps with the young man. The boy himself wondered if he had impregnated her. Perhaps her sudden hatred of smoking was due to that. Could such a change happen over one day, though?

The badger was a recurring image, though I have no idea why. Something about a timid creature hiding, maybe? A few different characters indicated that they had never seen a live badger, only dead ones on the side of the road. The woman was bit in the foot by a badger while lying naked on a rock, a fact that no one believed. I have no idea what this image may have meant and would be happy if anyone could shed some light on it for me!

Geese also feature in the novel. In the story line, the geese are gradually declining in numbers. The characters suspect that this is due to a local fox, but have no evidence of anything. The woman makes attempts to protect them from whatever is preying upon them, but they flee from her. By the end of the novel, however, their behaviour seems protective of her. I didn't fully understand the images of the geese or their overall meaning. As always, I'd be interested in hearing any ideas!

This is a sad story of woman who seems to be in crisis and the confused way she works her way through that crisis. Though she abandons her home and husband, she is taken care of by someone, someone who seems to care for her. The woman does not seem to improve, but rather worsens as the novel progresses. She seems unable to move on. She couldn't quite escape from her past or cope with the life she was trying to lead, having modeled her escape after the life of Dickinson.

The book explores loneliness, isolation, emotional struggle, and the idea of escape. This is not the happy tales of a woman recovered, but the sad tale of a woman defeated. I only realised upon finishing the last page that the book described a woman in decline, not a woman healing. Somehow, though, I found the ending both lonely and hopeful. I suppose just the image of the boy carrying on with his journey is a hopeful image, damaged though he may be.

All in all, I would recommend this novel. It is a good book for a rainy day. I did not feel that the these were particularly penetrating or thought provoking or even especially unique. I was not able to relate to the characters and found myself mostly confused by their actions. Nonetheless, the book was intriguing. It sounds grim to put it that way. It was an interesting exploration of crisis and pain, though, one with no real conclusions to draw on, if there ever are any conclusions to be made.

About the Author:
Gerbrand Bakker is a Dutch author. He is most known for his work The Twin, which was published in 2008 and won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2010. He is a gardener by profession, receiving his license in 2006. During the winter, he works as a skating instructor.

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