I’ve read a number of novels this year which explored the stress of married life: juggling bills, childcare, commuting, and Swiss author Peter Stamm’s To The Back of Beyond slots into those earlier reads. This is the story of a seemingly happily married man who one day simply …. walks away.
The book begins with married couple, Thomas and Astrid putting their children Konrad and Ella to bed. It’s mid-August and they’ve just returned from holiday. Astrid and Thomas are enjoying a glass of wine in the garden when Astrid goes to soothe Konrad. Thomas is left alone. He imagines the house was hot and stuffy in their absence, and then his thoughts turn to Astrid:
Thomas imagined Astrid making two separate piles of clean and dirty clothes She carried the dirty things down to the utility room in the basement and put the clean ones away in the closet in the bedroom; the kids’ things she folded neatly and left in a pile on the stairs to carry up tomorrow. She stopped for a moment at the foot of the steps and listened to a few quiet sounds from upstairs, the children getting comfortable in their newly made beds, in thoughts or dreams they were still at the beach, or maybe already back in school.
Thomas folds up his newspaper, walks out of the garden and out into the town. From there he slips into the woods and disappears from Astrid’s life.
Part of this short book follows Thomas while other sections follow Astrid as she tries to adjust to his absence, initially covering for him at work, until she can no longer hide the reality of Thomas’s absence.
There’s a strange, dream-like quality to the book. The author very quickly establishes the idea of how life goes on in our absence: for example, the house still exists when Thomas and Astrid are on holiday, so when Thomas leaves, Astrid and his children carry on both in reality and in his imagination.
When Astrid realized that Thomas wasn’t lying beside her, she would suppose he was already up, even though she invariably got up first. She would go upstairs half asleep and wake the children and go downstairs again. Then minutes later, freshly showered and in her robe, she would emerge from the bathroom and call the children who were bound to be still in bed.
There’s a whole ‘Sliding Doors‘ membrane over this subtle tale: did Thomas really leave Astrid or is he imagining a life without her? When we know someone, a life, a routine well enough, we can predict that person’s day, is that what Thomas does? Does he play with the idea of leaving or does he actually go? When does a marriage condense down to a routine? There’s nothing more real than a routine; schedules and routine can so easily replace living. What’s real here and what is fantasy? But this is not just male fantasy (and what happens to Thomas could certainly be construed as male fantasy,) there’s also fantasy taking place in Astrid’s mind. But then again, is this just Thomas’s ego-centric wish-fulfillment of the faithful little woman longing for her absent husband’s return? This is for the reader to decide.
Translated by Michael Hofmann