'Ten White Geese': Powerful novel from Holland

"Ten White Geese" by Gerbrand Bakker (Penguin, March

"Ten White Geese" by Gerbrand Bakker (Penguin, March 2013). (Credit: Handout)

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TEN WHITE GEESE, by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer. Penguin, 230 pp., $15 paper.

We don't know much about the woman at the center of Dutch author Gerbrand Bakker's powerful second novel, "Ten White Geese," but we know enough: she is a Dutch scholar working on her PhD thesis about Emily Dickinson. Her marriage is falling apart. She has been fired from the University of Rotterdam for having an affair with a student. And she has fled her home, in "windless and damp" mid-November, to seek refuge at a rundown rented cottage in north Wales, where she knows no one and calls herself Emilie (her real name is Agnes). She spends her days reading "The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson," planning a garden and trying to figure out why the 10 geese on the property are disappearing, one by one.

This is a woman in trouble. It's unclear whether Agnes has run away to heal and reinvent herself or to destroy herself a little bit more. "She had left everything behind, everything except the poems," Bakker writes. "They would have to see her through. She forgot to eat." Agnes does not feel lonely, nor does she dwell on the circumstances that brought her here, or what the future might hold. She thinks of her husband, Rutger, only in passing.

Her solitude is disrupted by a meddlesome neighbor, Rhys Jones, and by a 20-year-old, Bradwen, who shows up on her doorstep with his dog. He claims to be working on a mapping project and in need of a place to stay. The trouble is, he makes himself useful around the house by preparing meals and helping with repairs, and he doesn't want to leave. Agnes tolerates his presence, yet she seems to bristle at too much human contact.

Bakker, too, does not seem terribly interested in human contact. There is little dialogue in the novel, and those exchanges are spare and brief. While Agnes passes the time in the countryside, her husband waits anxiously back at home, trying to figure out his next move. (Rutger committed an act of arson upon learning of his wife's affair, but he was not prosecuted for the crime.) By the time he decides to track down his wife, accompanied by a police officer, he may be too late to save his marriage or even see his wife again.

"Ten White Geese" is bleak and lovely in equal measure. Bakker -- who won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his first novel, "The Twin" -- also captures the gorgeous desolation of the natural world as few contemporary writers can. And he makes Agnes a compelling enigma until the last page, sharing just enough of her anguish, but not too much. This is a tragic story, yet it is also one of the most beautifully written novels in recent memory.

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