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Enigma variations

17 March 2012

10:00 AM

17 March 2012

10:00 AM

The Detour Gerbrand Bakker

Harvill Secker, pp.230, 12.99

This is a novel full of hints and mysteries.  Why does the Dutch woman rent a house in rural Wales, bringing with her a mattress, some bedding and a portrait of Emily Dickinson? What is the matter with her — at times she seems energetic, at others obscurely suffering. And what is she escaping from? In due course information filters through, in a series of deeper hints and teases, and the story switches back and forth between Wales and Amsterdam, where her husband and parents and a friendly policeman discuss the possible reasons for her flight — and speculate about her whereabouts, and how to trace her.

In Wales, the woman, a lecturer by profession, sets about making a home in the primitive farmhouse and reclaiming the garden and grounds belonging to it, and all this is described in satisfying detail. But the geese on the farm are disappearing one by one in a sinister — perhaps metaphorical — fashion; and on a solitary walk she has an encounter with a badger who bites her foot, necessitating a consultation with a local GP, whose medical ethics would certainly arouse the disapproval of the General Medical Council.


She is a chain smoker, and her habit of taking all her clothes off is surely unwise in Wales in November. But she soldiers on, getting to know the local tradespeople and being soothed by the serenity of the Welsh countryside. Her intended pursuit of studying Emily Dickinson’s poems flags however, and she becomes disenchanted with the poet: ‘A puling woman who hid herself away in her house … insisting that people should ignore her, yet fishing for adulation.’

Soon a young man, Bradwen, appears, who is mapping out the local footpaths, and she gives him her sofa to sleep on in return for help with the gardening and shopping.  She also longs to run her fingers though his tousled hair. But the reader anxiously registers that back in Amsterdam, her husband has made discoveries of his own, and is planning to come over to Wales to find her, despite having suffered a coincidental injury to his own foot.

There is an element of fairy tale or myth about the characters. The woman is mostly referred to as ‘she’ and although introducing herself to Bradwen as Emilie, it is only much later that we discover her real name. Her family are rather archetypically known for most of the book as ‘the husband’, ‘the father’ and ‘the mother’, and Branwen becomes ‘the boy’. The boy finally packs his bags and resumes his map-making: ‘Sometimes a day’s work is for nothing, because it leads nowhere.’

Gerbrand Bakker won a Dublin Literary Award with his first novel, The Twin, which is being made into a film, and this is his second. It was published in Amsterdam in 2010. 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.


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