Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.
Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this ground
I started my last two reviews with poetic references, why not go the trifecta?
This novel makes it three in a row with frequent poetic references, first off we had “Dublinesque” with its reference to a poem of the same name by Philip Larkin, then “Traveller of the Century” with poetic translations throughout and now The Detour which references Emily Dickinson, and more specifically the poem above, throughout. And what better way to open a novel about the fragility of life than with an allegory to the death bed and the preparation of such?
This novel opens with our main protagonist (to strangers she introduces herself as “Emilie”) spotting badgers at a stone circle in Wales. We quickly learn that she has come here from Amsterdam, leaving her husband without notice after a failed affair with a student. She is finalising a thesis on the minor poems of Emily Dickinson and is interning herself in an old cottage. Observing the flock of ten geese in her yard slowly deplete and tidying up the garden. She has chosen a reclusive life for a reason and we can only guess its health related due to the pain and the increasing use of paracetamol. Literally bounding into her life are a local lad Bradwen and his dog Sam, who are hiking the local countryside and are coaxed into staying a night. The stay of course gets longer. Meanwhile her husband discovers a little about the truth of her disappearance, teams up with a Dutch policeman and after tracking her down through a private detective decides to follow her to Wales.
As mentioned earlier the novel has numerous Emily Dickinson references “(she)…noticed for the first time how short the section titled LOVE was and how long the last, TIME AND ETERNITY.” “She couldn’t remember if she had left it open at this page, A COUNTRY BURIAL.” And “since nothing is as real as ‘thought and passion’, our essential human truth is expressed by our fantasies, not our acts.” As you can see this is a novel that demands re-reading, one that have many complex undertows, references and themes. Our protagonist here is most likely not just a hermit locked in the country with her thoughts…or is she?
How on earth had Dickinson done that, withdrawing further and further, writing poetry as if her life depended on it, and dying? The life of the spirit, human truth – or authenticity? – expressed through the imagination and not by deeds.
We have a sparse novel here, one that says more by not saying anything at all, at no stage is there resolution, or explanation, it mirrors life where you really only know part of the story that is happening outside of your own experience. A bleak tale that is grey and misty throughout, dire and dank as well as disturbing in its use of language and setting.
She drifted away on the syrupy flow of the stream, her thoughts stretching out, she was almost asleep. She had just enough time to think how pleasant that was, sleep. How separate from everything else. How free from the things that worry people when they’re not sleeping, the things that scare them, the things that loom before them like a mountain.
In the last twelve months I’ve had the pleasure of reading Deborah Levy’s “Swimming Home”, “The Lighthouse” by Alison Moore both tackling similar themes to this wonderful novel and in a strangely similar bleak, cut back style. Another wonderful novel from the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist and one that is a deserved winner (even though I bounded and smiled more through Dublinesque!!) as it should be on more people’s bookshelves, being read and re-read. Please note there is a later edition available alternatively titled "Ten White Geese" (why I don't know and a banner calling it an "International Best Seller"...hmmm).