Magazine article The Spectator

Enigma Variations

Magazine article The Spectator

Enigma Variations

Article excerpt

The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker Harvill Secker, £12.99, pp. 230, ISBN 9781846556395 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 . …

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