You Would Have Missed Me, by Birgit Vanderbeke (translated by Jamie Bulloch), is the latest release in Peirene Press’s ‘There Be Monsters’ series. Based on the author’s childhood, it is told from the point of view of a young girl whose parents have fled East Germany for the West with their daughter just before the building of the Berlin Wall. The adults embrace the materialism of imported American culture, buying goods on credit in an attempt to emulate remembered wealth from their pre-war years. The child considers her parents’ conversations proof that their lives were so much better before she was born, and perceives a correlation.
The story opens on the girl’s seventh birthday. She understands that, once again, she will not be receiving the kitten she has longed for since they left the refugee camp for the assigned two bedroom flat where they now live. Her parents do not listen, believing they know best what is good for her. In her view, since moving to the West, they have done what they can to remove every source of her happiness.
Back in the East her grandmother would care for her while her mother was at work. She remembers: the large house and garden, the fun of visiting uncles, delicious food. Now she subsists on the bland offerings her mother cooks, denied even water when thirsty as her mother believes it will give her worms. Any friends the child makes are derided as beneath her family’s social standing. She is banned from visiting adults whose company she enjoyed at the camp after her mother questions their morals.
The mother is determined that her family will climb the ladder of social success. Her much younger husband struggles to contain his anger at the hand life has dealt him. The girl is frightened of her father and with good cause. She longs for someone wise to talk to, someone such as the fun and friendly doctor who arranges treatment for her injuries.
Children have no choice but to accept the decisions made for them by their parents. Remembering her earlier life, the child does not understand why they became refugees and why adults lie about so much when questions are asked. In viewing life through her eyes the reader is shown how ridiculous many aspects of adult behaviours can be and how futile their often hollow aspirations. Children see through the social blather and observe more than they are given credit for.
The ridiculousness of the mother’s desires add much humour. She hankers after possessions and experiences that, when grasped, will always fall short. Likewise she longs for an ideal daughter, one who is quiet and pretty and does not scuff her shoes or cause damage in the home. The child knows that she is a constant source of disappointment and must find a way to live with the hurt this causes.
“You get used to disappointments, but in the long term they make you feel cold and empty inside, and you begin to lose heart.”
Instead of a kitten the child is given a globe along with presents from people who have shown her kindness in the past. From these gifts she concocts a means to get through the moments of strife she faces at school and at home. Despite her parents’ inability to listen, she finds her voice. It gives her hope that she can navigate her way to a better future.
The nuance and wit in the writing raises this astute tale of childhood hurt to a level both haunting and sanguine. The treatment of children, seen through the eyes of a child, is a reminder that parents are fallible and, too often, selfish in their motives. The refugee element adds a layer of poignancy. Subtle and compact, this is a deftly affecting yet entertaining tale.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.