The Stranger in the House: A Review of Ten White Geese

In Gerbrand Bakker’s novel Ten White Geese (published in the UK as The Detour), a Dutch woman takes a short-term lease on an old cottage in rural Wales. Avoiding contact with the handful of locals, she does little but sleep, drink wine, smoke, and wander around the property.

She’s brought only a handful of personal items with her, including copies of Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems and Alfred Habegger’s biography of the poet. But the way she carefully ignores these items connects her to the remnants of a life she’s fleeing from – and the people looking for her.

Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker translated from Dutch by David Colmer Penguin, 2012 230 pages (paperback) Source: public library

Ten White Geese
by Gerbrand Bakker
translated from Dutch
by David Colmer
Penguin, 2012
230 pages (paperback)
Source: public library
Available at Amazon

The house, like its temporary occupant, has a mysterious backstory. It’s functional but shabby. The overgrown property sports a few outbuildings, a stream, and a quiet woods that opens onto an ancient ring of stones. Resting there during a walk, the woman encounters an uncharacteristically diurnal badger – one disoriented interloper challenging another.

As the days pass, the woman begins to garden aggressively. She conceives of a plan to establish a rose garden on the property, tackling the overgrowth with a vigor and then collapsing into bed at night with a handful of pills. Her progress is slow until a young man appears suddenly on the property and offers to help for a few days. In response, she hands him a shovel and makes up a bed for him in one of the empty rooms.

This is suspense at its most spare. A psychological screw – familiar but unnamed, liberating but fatalistic – cranks tighter with every paragraph. Bakker makes masterful use of few words, revealing the complexities of relationships with no more than a glance or a lack of response. The territory of the novel is so tight that the smallest movements and personal exchanges have enormous potential to shift the outcome.

The English translation won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last year, making it Bakker’s second award-winning novel – and a winner in my quest to read more works in translation this year. Stark and disquieting, it’s a book that takes up residence in your head and leaves its mark on the place.

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