“I have the strange habit of wanting to climb Snowdon once a year.” (Gerbrand Bakker)

This is my contribution to Dewithon 2023, hosted by the lovely Paula over at Book Jotter. Dewithon is an annual celebration of literature by and about writers from Wales – I’ve interpreted the brief pretty broadly this year as I’ve picked a novel by a Dutch writer, but it evokes its North Wales setting beautifully.

The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker (2010 trans. David Colmer 2012) is a quiet, melancholic novel, that shows without telling. I’d previously read The Twin by this author and found this similar in its themes of isolation and troubled relationships, and a refusal to judge its protagonists.

Emilie rents a cottage in rural Wales, fleeing from her husband in Amsterdam after her affair with a student at the university where she taught is exposed. Her backstory is revealed gradually, without explanations of how or why things happened. We just know how it is she has found herself somewhere unexpected and unplanned.

Bakker maintains a delicate balance between a recognisable portrait of this part of Wales, capturing its beauty without sentimentality; and then also having a slightly surreal, unpredictable element threatening to break through at various times too:

“It was just those geese; they were peculiar. Had she rented the geese too? And one morning a large flock of black sheep suddenly appeared in the field beside the road, every one with a white blaze and a long white-tipped tail. On her land. Who did they belong to?”

“Then she saw the mountain for the first time and realised what a vast landscape existed behind her house and how small an area she had moved in until that moment. […] The next day she bought an Ordnance Survey map at an outdoor shop in Caernarfon. Scale: 1-25,000.”

There is quite an emphasis on Emilie’s body and at first I approached this with some weariness, but it became apparent that this focus was there for a reason. Emilie seems to be very reliant on paracetamol…

Other characters cross her path: a slightly menacing neighbour, a doctor addicted to his cigarettes, a chatty hairdresser, as well as a young man, Bradwen, who turns up with his dog Sam and then never leaves. Emilie and Bradwen both seem to need something which the other provides, without anything being agreed or explicitly stated.

“I don’t think I want to know anything about him at all, she thought. He just has to be here.”

There is also a thread of tension as Emilie’s husband leaves home with a police detective in order to find her. His relationship with his in-laws provides some humour in what is otherwise quite a sombre novel (aside from some pithy observations on the vagaries of Escape to the Country):

“‘If you ask me, you’ve got plenty to hide,’ the mother said. ‘You turned out to be an arsonist, after all.’

The husband sighed.”

There is very little plot in The Detour but I found it a compelling read and whizzed through it in a couple of hours. Bakker trusts his readers not to need everything spelled out for them, and he creates complex, flawed characters that are presented as they are, without asking the reader to like or dislike them. He obviously has a great affection for Wales too, so I’m pleased to have read this for Dewithon 2023.

“That mountain, she thought, I have to keep an eye on Mount Snowdon, then I’ll know where I am.”

You can read an interview with Gerbrand Bakker about The Detour with Wales Arts Review here.

To end, this has absolutely nothing to do with the post, but I’m finally getting properly back to theatre-going after being somewhat intermittent since lockdown lifted. Recently I saw Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which I completely loved. Among a hugely talented cast, I thought Faith Omole particularly shone:

22 thoughts on ““I have the strange habit of wanting to climb Snowdon once a year.” (Gerbrand Bakker)

  1. Pingback: Reading Wales 2023 – Book Jotter

  2. I remember reading Bakker’s novel, June, some time ago and being struck by how simple it appeared but it left me with much to think about. Very much like the sound of this one, too. Glad to hear you’re getting back to theatre-going!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I do like the surreal feel which he seems to bring to the place; I wish I could be there with geese and sheep around me. Well I do have the former since some of our ‘migrants’ are on their way back now and one sees nice formations fly past!
    This sounds very good!

    Liked by 1 person

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