A woman, calling herself Emily, has fled Amsterdam and rented a remote farm in Wales. Spending most of her time by herself, avoiding others as best she can, she doesn’t quite get around to continuing her research project on Emily Dickinson. Instead she starts improving her surroundings and keeping an eye on the geese in a field. When she arrived there were ten, but now they’re disappearing one by one. Maybe a fox is taking them, or maybe a bird.
When a young man injures himself jumping over a wall into her garden he stays for the night and then doesn’t leave.
Back in Amsterdam the husband is still getting used to the idea that his wife had an affair with a student and left after confessing this to him. It is only when he discovers that she is ill that he decides to try and find her and travels to Wales with Anton, a policeman.
With the woman’s grasp on reality getting ever less firm, the future is unsure, for her, for the young man, for her husband and for the geese.
This is a minimalist book. The author seems to be using as little words as possible leaving a lot unsaid and open to interpretation by the reader. No clear picture of any of the characters or their motivation is painted. In fact it appears as if everything said and done in this story is accidental, unpremeditated, coincidental.
The woman’s thoughts seem to jump and lack direction, which adds a level of realism to the story since nobody thinks in full sentences and completed narratives. Our thoughts are all over the place at the best of times, and for the woman in the story these are not the best of times by any stretch of the imagination.
It is hard to know the driving force behind the actions of the characters in this book. Nobody seems to think about why they’re doing or not doing things, and nobody seems to question the other characters about their reasons.
Everything and everybody is kept at arm’s length. The woman calls herself Emily, but it is unlikely that is actually her name. Her husband is only identified as such, “the husband”. These two main protagonists don’t want to get close to the people around them.
The minimalistic approach and jumbled thoughts almost make this novel too realistic. No prettifying of life for this author, life is depicted in sober terms and a gloomy light, just as it was in The Twin. This doesn’t make for an easy to read book, but it does create real feelings in the reader and makes the story strangely compelling. On several occasions I had to put the book down for a little while just to process what was actually happening.
The writing in this book is sparse, unemotional and yet leaden with meaning even if the reader has to look for that meaning between the words and lines.
A lot of the narrative in this book revolves around language and translation, which makes me wonder how much, if anything, was lost in the translation of this book from Dutch. The fact that this is a story about a Dutch woman situated in Wales makes that question even more fascinating. I will have to try to get my hands on the original some time, just to discover if reading the book in Dutch makes a difference to the story and the feelings it evokes.