To The Back of Beyond

Not everything you did had a reason. Peter Stamm

After a summer vacation in Spain, Astrid and Thomas and their two young children return to their home in Switzerland. They unpack their bags, have a light dinner and Astrid puts the children to bed. Afterwards the couple relax with a glass of wine outside on their garden terrace.

When Astrid goes back inside to console one of the children, Thomas gets up, goes to the garden gate, unlatches it and begins walking. He continues to walk through the night, the next day and night and continues walking through the hills, valleys and villages of Switzerland.

This is how Peter Stamm’s latest novel To the Back of Beyond begins and continues until the last page. The book alternates in short sections between Astrid’s thoughts and Thomas’ experiences. Astrid tries to explain to the children what has happened to Thomas. Thomas struggles to get by during cold winter days and nights in Switzerland.

Initially Thomas walks only at night so he won’t be recognized by anyone who might know him. As he walks further away from his village, he is more likely to walk during the day as well. Astrid contacts the police to report Thomas is missing. Even with trained search dogs, they have no luck in finding him.

Meanwhile Thomas takes on short term jobs, earns a little money, sleeps in hostels or someone’s hayloft and then moves on. One day he takes out a fair amount of cash from his bank account, goes to a recreational store to buy camping equipment and clothing with his credit card. But these records are no help to the police, as he disappears once again.

Astrid tells the children he has gone on a long business trip and the boss of the business where he works that he has shingles and won’t be able to come back for several months.

Large segments of time go by, their two children grow into adults, graduate from college, are married now with their own families. They have largely forgotten about Thomas. But Astrid hasn’t, she imagines he will return, hears the garden gate open and thinks it is him, carries on as best she can.

Nothing much happens in this novel, there is little we know about Astrid or Thomas, the village where they live, their daily life, except what we can infer from the few details Stamm provides. It is difficult to know what he is trying to convey.

To the Back of Beyond reads like a mystery with countless questions that seek answers. Why does Thomas leave what to all appearances is a contented family, marriage and social condition? What is he running away from? Where is he headed? Why does he leave to wander among the hills of Switzerland?

In spite of its simple plot and little action, I found the novel captivating, read it quickly, and regretted it ended without the slightest resolution of its many questions.