From the opening paragraph, Peter Stamm’s To the Back of Beyond is mysterious and mesmerizing … The book moves smoothly between [Thomas’s] point of view and Astrid’s, so skillfully that this inexplicable adventure seems completely plausible. Thomas hikes through forests and up mountains, sleeping rough, foraging for food, occasionally finding shelter. He knows where he is headed, although we do not … Stamm’s pivot halfway through the book is masterful: The story opens up, moving forward and backward in time almost simultaneously. The outcome becomes murky, but Stamm’s control never wavers.
As always, Stamm sets up the psychological territory with such quiet precision that the reader succumbs at once: it must be true … Not to spoil it, let’s simply say that, between mountain misadventures, police investigations and strange scramblings of chronology, Stamm finds a way to draw his characters’ sense of being divided between different lives into the very structure of the book, creating two quite separate dimensions for husband and wife, to the point that it is sometimes difficult to understand whether the woman we are reading about, waiting years and years like some latter-day Penelope for her husband’s return, is no more than Thomas’s fantasy … Whatever the case, it’s clear that only Stamm could have dreamed up such a plot, and only he could have pulled it off. It is his genius and his burden.
Stamm isn’t interested in the why of Thomas’s walkabout, which he takes for granted as being, if not inevitable, then at least as possible as the alternative. Thomas opens the gate; he walks down the road; he keeps going … One month after Thomas disappears, there is a twist in the plot. It is masterfully timed, arriving exactly when the narrative has become arid. It didn’t make me care about Thomas — nothing could — but it complicates matters, and makes us see Astrid differently. Both of them, it is clear, are in thrall to fantasies — one dreams about slipping the ties of responsibility, the other about seamlessly restoring what has been broken. That Stamm treats these as distinctly male and female is predictable, and, frankly, annoying.