Book Review: You Would Have Missed Me

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.

Book Review: The Last Summer

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The Last Summer, by Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch), is an epistolary thriller set in early twentieth century Russia. It is Peirene Title No 22 and the first offering in the publisher’s new East and West Series.

A challenge to the status quo by students has resulted in the governor of St Petersburg, Yegor von Rasimkara, closing the university. This controversial action has been countered by a threat to the governor’s life.

Yegor has withdrawn to his summer residence with his wife, the always anxious Lusinya, and their three children – Velya, their son, who is described as a handsome and droll young chap studying law in the hope of one day pursuing a diplomatic career; their two daughters, Jessika and Katya, are ‘sweet, blonde creatures’, although Katya retains a mind of her own.

“There is something childishly harmless about the family overall […] deep down they feel themselves to be alone in a world that belongs to them.”

The loyal servents are described as old-school Russians who still feel like serfs. They are joined by a new addition, Lyu, who is taken on as a bodyguard and secretary to Yegor in an attempt to mitigate Lusinya’s worries following the death threat. Unbeknown to them, Lyu is the rebel student’s chosen assassin.

Lyu is welcomed by the family adding depth and diversion to their daily discussions. The letters each writes to friends and wider family tell of first impressions, love interests and then growing disquiet at the developing situation. It is a fascinating study of how people react and their opinions change as experience colours perceptions.

Lyu gets to know the family and considers several means by which he may carry out his quest. Where his reconnaissance risks raising suspicion he finds the trusting family jump to conclusions he could not have predicted.

The novelty of a new mind to probe soon wanes and the family resume their own pursuits which Lyu seeks to influence. The audacious plan he settles on is not without risk. The family become caught up in the younger members’ attempt to further their education despite the university’s closure. They talk of aiding other students who do not enjoy their privileges which vexes their father.

The writing is taut and insightful laying bare how selfish individual outlooks tend to be. Other than Lyu, whose actions some may consider a necessary means to an end, the cast at first appears benign. Their actions, however, will have repercussions on the less fortunate. They think of helping only when it was of little trouble to them.

Despite the historical setting this story remains pertinent. It is also beautifully written, its points raised more powerful for their subtlety. The polite interactions tremble with undercurrents of suppressed emotion. In reading I became a part of the time and place.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: The Empress and the Cake

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The Empress and the Cake, by Linda Stift (translated by Jamie Bolloch), is the third and final book in the 2016 Peirene series, Fairy Tale: End of Innocence. Earlier this year I read the second in this series, Her Father’s Daughter (you may read my review  here). These exquisite short works of fiction are the treasure discerning readers seek.

Set in Vienna, this latest tale centres around Frau Hohenembs, an elderly countess now living in a city apartment cluttered with objects from her past. She is cared for by a rotund housekeeper, Ida, who puts up with her mistress’s temper and quirks due to an oft repeated promise of a house in Corfu. The story is told from the point of view of a young women Frau Hohenembs meets at a local bakery. The countess offers a share of the cake she is buying and persuades the young woman to accompany her home, taking advantage of perceived weakness and a compliant nature.

Eating the cake triggers the young woman’s food addiction and she descends into a dangerous spiral of binge followed by purge. Meanwhile, Frau Hohenembs plans raids on city museums to reclaim items once owned by her icon, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, referred to as Sissi.

Throughout the narrative are scattered anecdotes written by an unknown source who was close to the assassinated Empress, detailing episodes in her life. Sissi was obsessed with her looks, particularly her hair and weight. She observed a rigorous exercise regime and strictly controlled her diet. She would be sewn into her clothes and spend up to three hours a day having her exceptionally long hair styled and dressed.

Frau Hehenembs emulates this way of living, regularly berating Ida for lack of control in her consumption. When she notes that the young women, whose life she is now manipulating, has lost weight, she congratulates her even though the means by which this has occurred is evident.

The museum raids offer Frau Hehenembs a hold over her acolytes which she abuses dispassionately. When the young woman realises how she is being used she determines to escape.

There is a sinister undercurrent. The vagueness of the timeframe and the similarities between characters’ habits and foibles add shadows but also depth. The denouement is perfect.

The story is told with an elegant succinctness. The author understands that her readers will possess sufficient intelligence to read between the lines. The quality of the prose is a joy in itself, the spine tingling unfolding of the tale a pleasure to satisfy any literary palate.

There has been a trend recently for publishing big books. This offering proves that size is no indicator of value. I finished the story in a day but the pleasure lingers. You will feel no regrets indulging in this tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.