A few weeks after moving into a farm house in the Welsh countryside, Emilie, an expatriate from the Netherlands, starts to think about her uncle. This uncle tried to drown himself in a pond in front of the hotel where he worked. Even though he stuffed his pockets with heavy objects from the hotel, the pond was too shallow, and the water only reached his waist. At one time, Emilie was close to her uncle growing up, but she hasn’t thought of him in a long time.
Perhaps she did now, in this foreign country, because it was November here too or because she sensed how vulnerable people are when they have no idea what to do next, how to move forward or back. That a shallow hotel pond can feel like a standstill, like marking time with the bank—no start or end, a circle—as the past, present and unlimited future. And because of that, she also thought she understood him just standing there and not trying to get his head underwater. A standstill. . . . She inhabited the house the way he’d stood in the pond.
This episode haunts Emilie throughout Ten White Geese, the second novel by Gerbrand Bakker to be translated into English, as she tries to figure out how to move forward. However, in her attempts at a new life, she not only experiences cultural and language barriers, but she eventually faces the threat of going back to everything (and everyone) she abandoned.
Before escaping to Wales, Emilie was a translation studies instructor who has been working on a thesis on American poet Emily Dickinson. She was fired after it was revealed that she’d had an affair with a student. She confessed the affair to her husband (most of the characters’ names are not revealed until the climax) but then fled, leaving her cell phone on the ferry. Once she arrived in Wales, she decided to rent the farm for the last two months of the year. The only things she brought with her were a mattress, some books, a portrait of Dickinson, and some painkillers.
The farm has a field with ten white geese. Despite the field being surrounded by barbed wire, the geese begin to disappear. Emilie suspects that a fox might be eating them and feels guilty about it; also, she’s only “renting” them, so when there are only six left, she builds them a shelter that they end up spurning. “They ran off the wrong way in a column or scattered, as if understanding that it was hard to choose between six separate birds. . . . Panting, she scooped up a few pebbles and threw them at the geese. ‘Ungrateful, dirty, filthy, stinking, pig-headed creatures!’ she shouted. ‘I’m trying to bloody save you!’”
Ironically, Emilie, who smokes and takes her painkillers with alcohol, seems to be the one who needs saving. Early in the novel, she’s attacked by a badger after resting on its stone circle near the house. Nobody believes that the bite on her foot came from a creature commonly perceived as peaceful. “That’s impossible,” more than one person tells her. However, this “badger story,” as it comes to be known, is not just a running gag used during the story’s lighter moments.
In a strange way, the badger, the geese, and even that mysterious creature eating the geese are trying to tell her that she doesn’t belong in Wales. They’re not the only ones: some of the locals, including a snarky doctor and an intolerant hairdresser, treat her more like a tourist than a new resident. Even the friendly wife of a baker makes her feel that she cannot survive here on her own.
Furthermore, a couple of characters also try to assert their authority over Emilie: the repulsive “caricature of a Welshman” named Rhys Jones and the mysterious university dropout Bradwen. Jones doesn’t own the land that she’s renting, but acts as a messenger from the real-estate agent who does. Also, because of an arrangement made in the past, he lets his sheep graze on the farm without asking her permission and comes and goes whenever he pleases; at one point, he even makes an unwanted advance toward her.
Her relationship with Bradwen is more complicated. While establishing a long distance route that would include a path through her farm, he falls and hurts himself. She offers to let him and his dog Sam stay the night. They leave the next morning but return that afternoon. Since Bradwen doesn’t want to return to his father, she lets him stay; in exchange, he performs various chores and errands for her. She also agrees to help him establish the route.
Initially, it appears that Bradwen is trying to help her move forward, literally and figuratively. As the novel progresses, they become more intimate, even though she sometimes struggles to communicate with him. In one interesting scene, Emilie, who is fluent in English, finds herself having trouble understanding a simple word like “kite,” which Bradwen uses to describe a bird. “She couldn’t work it out. She knew that it meant something else, this word that the boy had said twice now, but she could only picture a red diamond on a string with a tail of knotted rags. Somewhere in her head, something needed to happen. His English needed to become her English, so that she could simply understand him.”
However, even when language is not a problem, they do not always understand each other. For example, on more than one occasion, when Emilie commands Bradwen to leave the house, he refuses. He acts as if she needs him for the errands and chores, but the reader senses that he has another motive. Sometimes, he assumes things about her; at another point, when she’s asking him questions, he shuts her down completely.
While Emilie and Bradwen are trying to work out their relationship, her husband, like Emilie’s uncle, doesn’t know whether to “move forward” or “move back”; eventually, he chooses the latter. After he is released from jail for attempting to burn down the university, he seeks help from his in-laws; however, every time he does, a communication breakdown occurs. In one scene, while the Dutch version of American Idol is distracting them, Emilie’s parents trail in and out of conversation with her husband. The in-laws do not help much, but the husband ends up finding an unlikely ally: the police officer who arrested him. When the husband accidentally learns that his wife may have some kind of serious illness, the officer helps track her down.
While Ten White Geese is not a thriller, it does have the pacing of one. Bakker gives the reader some great plot twists, which balance well with the minimalist descriptions of life in the country and the disjointed dialogue, competently translated by David Colmer. However, even though readers will be absorbed in the plot, they will also be compelled by the characters and their struggles to break through the barriers that keep them from moving forward.
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