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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Detour
(Ten White Geese)

Gerbrand Bakker

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To purchase Ten White Geese

Title: The Detour
Author: Gerbrand Bakker
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 230 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Ten White Geese - US
The Detour - UK
The Detour - Canada
The Detour - India
Le détour - France
Der Umweg - Deutschland
El desvío - España
  • Dutch title: De omweg
  • UK title: The Detour
  • US title: Ten White Geese
  • Translated by David Colmer
  • Awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, 2013

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting, atmospheric meditation on personal relationships

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian . 14/4/2012 James Bradley
FAZ . 27/4/2012 Ernst Osterkamp
The Guardian A 15/3/2012 John Burnside
The Independent . 23/3/2012 Daniel Hahn
NZZ . 5/5/2012 Andrea Lüthi
The Spectator . 17/3/2012 Connie Bensley
Sydney Morning Herald . 2/6/2012 Cathy Peake
TLS . 4/5/2012 Jonathan Gibbs
Wall Street Journal . 23/2/2013 Sam Sacks

  Review Consensus:

  Generally quite impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Despite some weaker moments in the book's latter sections Bakker writes brilliantly well a lot of the time. The opening pages in particular have a stark, almost primal power, while even the lighter moments, most of which involve the townsfolk and Agnes's weirdly self-absorbed parents, have a peculiar, off-kilter rhythm that is oddly appealing. Nonetheless, despite the strength of the writing and the flashes of humour, the novel seems unable to quite deliver on its promise." - James Bradley, The Australian

  • "Das ist die ganze Geschichte. Gerbrand Bakker erzählt sie mit einer beeindruckenden Kunst der Andeutungen und der atmosphärischen Verdichtung; der Leser kann das Haus riechen, in das sich die Frau eingemietet hat, er kann die Sonne, den Wind und den Regen spüren, die über die karge walisische Landschaft hinweggehen." - Ernst Osterkamp, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "What is essential to The Detour is the question of ordinary grief, which seems to begin with some trigger -- a death, a betrayal, the end of a love affair -- but gradually reveals itself to have been there all along, waiting to be revealed. (...) The Detour is a beautiful, oddly moving work of fiction, a quiet read that lingers long in the mind, like the ghosts that linger in our homes, and in the land around us." - John Burnside, The Guardian

  • "The Detour is written and translatedwith lapidary precision, perspective and crisp prose; there is emotion and expression, but held back from the writing, which is controlled and full of clean, physical detail, simple and devastating." - Daniel Hahn, The Independent

  • "Die Sehnsucht, mit der Natur zu verschmelzen, und der Zwiespalt zwischen Todeswunsch und -angst geben den Grundton an in diesem stark reduzierten und dennoch bildkräftigen Roman. Aus der zurückhaltenden Erzählweise schöpft Bakker die enorme poetische Kraft, die ihm eigen ist." - Andrea Lüthi, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The particular strength is in the plot, which springs some late revelations and surprises, and will almost certainly keep you rooted to your chair until the dénouement." - Connie Bensley, The Spectator

  • "Perhaps because this novel is so spare and so poignant, so purposefully restricted in its scope and geography, and so reluctant to be specific or moralising about inner states of mind, we understand its characters by such things as what they wear, cook, eat, and design -- the incidental details of its world (.....) Austere and relentless in its chart of the slow tragedy that is Agnes's life, Bakker's novel is also surprisingly convivial." - Cathy Peake, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "The protagonist's particular expertise is Emily Dickinson, and the translation of a poem ("Ample make this bed") is central to the climax of this quietly astonishing book, translated with apparent lucidity by David Colmer. When someone wants to show you another person, or people, doing something, but doesn't want them to be disturbed, they touch you on the arm and point silently. That is what reading this humble, compassionate book is like." - Jonathan Gibbs, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Mr. Bakker cultivates the mysteries of Emilie's decline by, perhaps unsportingly, simply withholding basic information -- we know little of Emilie's background (including her real name) and even less about the odd people she encounters in Wales. The prose, nicely translated by David Colmer, is unadorned yet oblique. Everything comes at that strange Dickinsonian slant, lighting up the seemingly ordinary natural surroundings with an unearthly aura of menace and unease." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Detour (now published in the US as Ten White Geese) centers around a Dutch woman who has abruptly left her university position and decamped to Wales one November. She introduces herself -- eventually -- as 'Emilie' (understood as 'Emily'), but from much earlier on it's already clear that she is very, very reluctant to reveal anything about herself, and that 'Emilie' is just the convenient label she borrows from Emily Dickinson -- a poet she specializes in, and whose work she has brought with her. Her real name is eventually revealed, but it isn't much more than a label either.
       More or less overnight, Emilie abandoned her husband, along with pretty much everything else. The novel shifts back and forth between her settling in in a cottage she rents in Wales and her husband's efforts to find out what happened to her -- and eventually to seek her out. While most of the novel focuses on what she is doing, the scenes with the husband do help in bit by bit revealing why she left the university, and possibly why she has more or less abandoned her entire familiar life.
       Emilie certainly didn't open up to her husband; in fact, she just up and left, just taking a few things with her. As someone tells the husband:

That's what makes it so peculiar. Your not knowing.
       Bakker plays with this sense of peculiarity towards the reader too, withholding information that would clear rather many things up very easily and instead hinting and suggesting until it all becomes pretty clear. It's a difficult thing to pull off, especially since Bakker takes on the two points of view (rather than simply committing to one): he wants the story to unfold both from Emilie's perspective -- obviously she knows what went wrong and what is going wrong, but Bakker only shows her actions and reactions, not her rehashing the salient points -- while the husband leads the reader in piecing together what exactly went (and is going) down. (The tease does, however, also extend to the scenes with the husband: "You know what she did", her parents remind him, without revealing exactly what that was (even if that only turns out to be part of the story).)
       Emilie's Dickinson preoccupation also offers up clues -- as, for example, she wonder to herself:
How on earth had Dickinson done that, withdrawing further and further, writing poetry as if her life depended on it, and dying ?
       Emilie seeks, in a way, to emulate Dickinson and so, for example, one of the projects she undertakes in her new home is an attempt to translate a Dickinson poem (the English version opens the book; the Dutch closes it).
       The quality and appeal of The Detour is almost entirely atmospheric. The question of what exactly is going on -- what are Emilie's secrets and what are her plans ? will her husband find out what has become of her ? -- and if he does, what then ? -- makes for a bit of narrative tension, but it's the mundane and the apparently everyday -- the characters going through their motions -- that makes the story so oddly gripping.
       Taciturn Emilie doesn't share much, but the locals always seem to know more than one might expect. A young man (who has also just abandoned university) comes by and then stays -- and turns out to have a few secrets of sorts of his own. Meanwhile, back in Holland, Emilie's husband befriends a policeman who arrested him -- and they wind up traveling together to Wales to find his wife.
       The Bakker-universe is a slightly cryptic one, in which so much goes unsaid and relationships are oddly strained. It's noteworthy how few people communicate directly, especially when they are close -- Emilie and her husband, her parents, a father and son -- and how much communication is via notes and cards. Almost all these characters have created cocooned worlds of their own in which they accept the occasional comings and goings of others but rarely connect or relate to them in any meaningful ways. Typically, the policeman and Emilie's husband make it all the way to Hull before the policeman asks -- plaintively, one imagines --: "Could you call me Anton sometime ?", explaining: "'Anton,' he said. 'That's my name.'" as if the husband until that point hadn't even recognized him as any sort of individual.
       There are geese on the property Emilie rents -- hence the title of the American version of the novel -- but of the ten that were there when she arrived not all survive; what happens to the rest is, like so much in the story, a mystery. Bakker does a nice job with these larger and smaller mysteries and oddities, as the world -- and human relationships within it -- remain unknowable and ungraspable, regardless of how one confronts them. So too Emilie's efforts to make herself at home here -- she does some gardening, she buys a TV, she gets a Christmas tree -- inevitably fall short, and she never really manages to fit in (helped by the fact that much of the time she does her best to keep everyone at a distance).
       The end that comes is hardly unexpected -- after a while the novel clearly builds to it, both with Emilie's increasingly desperate actions, and with the inexorable approach of her husband -- but Bakker nicely keeps the focus off what one would expect to be the center stage in his finale, fixing it instead on the relatively peripheral -- another nice touch.
       An intriguingly crafted novel that strains a bit under all the portents, hints, and Dickinson, The Detour is impressively atmospheric and a solid good read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 February 2013

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The Detour: Reviews: Gerbrand Bakker: Other books by Gerbrand Bakker under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Gerbrand Bakker was born in 1962.

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© 2013-2021 the complete review

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