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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker

When I finished this novel, I wasn't sure if I liked it or not, but I realized that I had said several times while reading it that it was good, and I looked forward to reading more each night.  And then  I kept thinking about it after it was over.  So, I enjoyed it.  One of the brilliant elements in this book, perhaps the best element, is the inclusion of bits of poetry by The Belle of Amherst, Emily DickinsonThis book is translated from the Dutch, giving it a European feel that I like.  The main poem begins, "Ample make this bed.  Make this bed with awe; In it wait till judgement break, Excellent and fair."  There's a second verse that's just as good.  I had never heard this poem before, and I checked my own little volume of Dickinson poetry, but it wasn't there.  So right in the beginning, we are given the gift of this exquisite little verse.  When the book opens, we can tell the main character is female and that she's in a rural area of Europe (it turns out to be Wales).  Like Dickinson's poetry, there's a lot of symbolism in this novel, such as a stone circle, black sheep, white geese, and roses.  The farmhouse itself calls forth the past, with its claw-foot bathtub, worn floorboards, fireplaces and wood-burning stove.  Just as Emily Dickinson hid from society, our main character Emilie has run to this place to do the same.  Emilie is a scholar of Dickinson, and so the poetry is infused even into her thoughts.  It's November and the days are getting shorter (time is getting shorter), and the geese are disappearing one by one.  Emilie begins to smell, emanating from herself, the odor of the dead widow who had lived in this farmhouse, and the elegiac nature of all these omens is expressed in another short stanza of Dickinson's:  Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn, Indicative that suns go down. . . (I won't tell you the rest).  Men come and go in Emilie's life, and like most women, she has to fend off a few who are toxic.  She is grieving and experiencing loss, and we know this because she cuts her hair off.  She begins to reject eating animals, and in her new, stripped-down life,  finds her own compassion.  If you're like me, this book will haunt you a little, and things will click into place in your mind later.  Why is she seeing butterflies in December?  If she's so homesick, why doesn't she call home?  This is one of those books that bears a second reading someday.

If you are now intrigued by Emily Dickinson, you may like this other historical fiction novel I read some years ago:  The Sister by Paola Kaufmann.  It delves much more into the poetry and everyday life of the enigmatic Dickinson.

In closing, here's a Dickinson stanza that I would have included in this book:  Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me. The carriage held but just ourselves and Immortality. . .