BOOK REVIEW: In this elliptically told novel, a Dutch academic abandons her husband and settles in a small Welsh town. As her husband begins to search for her, her reasons for choosing isolation are slowly revealed.
A pastoral environment where violence dwells just below the surface is a familiar setting in fiction. At first glimpse, Gerbrand Bakker’s novel “Ten White Geese” (Penguin, 230 pages, $15, translated by David Colmer) would seem to be an example of this. It opens with its protagonist, a Dutch academic using the name Emilie, living in isolation in a small Welsh town. On the farm where she has come to dwell is a group of geese, whose numbers slowly dwindle. Bakker’s narrative doesn’t go where you might expect. Though there are moments of ominous human contact, this novel also contains wry comedy and unlikely moments of human connection — or, at least, attempts to connect.
Soon, we will learn why Emilie — referred to mostly as “she” or “her” in the book — has come to live alone; lightly paralleling her story is that of her estranged husband, recently disciplined for a violent action and attempting to solve the mystery of Emilie’s disappearance. Bakker’s approach here is memorably oblique as he gradually reveals the answers to certain questions by inference: What is Emilie doing in Wales? What prompted the rift between her and her husband? Will their narratives eventually intersect? At times, this approach can frustrate: one scene involving Emilie’s husband also involves characters only designated as “the mother” and “the father” — a distancing device that seems out of sync with the realistic tone. Certain parallels emerge between Emilie and her husband, including matching foot injuries. And Emilie’s neighbors’ bafflement at an attack on her by a badger becomes a running joke, a welcome vein of comedy in an otherwise stark work.
Besides the elliptical way the narrative emerges, Bakker’s strongest suit can be found in his descriptions of Emilie’s life in seclusion. At one point, she makes a reference to “the smell of an old woman in my body,” and the sensory components of bodies and places is a recurring motif in the book. Language is, as well: specifically, the gulf between Emilie’s own language and the English she has adopted. After befriending Bradwen, a young hiker, she notes that “his English needed to become her English.” Emilie is herself a scholar specializing in the works of Emily Dickinson, lending another layer to the themes of translation and misunderstanding that run throughout the novel.
By book’s end, plot developments will cause certain questions raised by Bakker to be answered in a more overt fashion, dissipating some of the atmosphere maintained so precisely. Yet Emilie herself remains satisfyingly enigmatic, consistently managing her secrets in a way that leads to a memorably surreal final image. In the evolution of her character, and in the ways in which she interacts with the world, Bakker establishes a steadily mounting tension via an unlikely reworking of quotidian moments. It’s in those strange, haunting glimpses of a disrupted life that this novel truly finds its voice.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Joyland, Flavorwire and the anthology Hair Lit, Vol. 1.