July 2015

The Girl Who Wasn’t There by Ferdinand von Schirach – 4

I’m not much of a crime reader usually, but this is a murder mystery with a difference. A boy grows up under the shadow of a father who kills himself, and an emotionally distant mother. As an adult he remains detached from emotional ties but builds a successful career as a conceptual artist. More than half of the book tells his story, and Eschburg’s unusual perceptions caught my interest straight away. In the latter part of the book, Eschburg is on trial for a murder about which he refuses to answer any questions. Is he guilty? The answer really isn’t straightforward, but it’s a very intriguing read that provides some interesting sidenotes about real historical figures, and ultimately quite a lot of food for thought.

I sometimes find the prose of translations difficult to engage with, but this one flowed well (in the first half, at least). The two halves of the book seem to me to have quite different styles. The style is choppier in the second half, which I suspect was a deliberate change of pace, but felt did not quite sit right. Some of the later scenes about the lawyer felt a bit like padding (even though it is only a short novel) and could easily have been cut to create a far more concise, incisive finish. These are just minor quibbles, though, and overall, it is a very sharp, carefully considered, unusual, and enjoyable whole. Even though an entirely different kind of novel, it does share some themes with The Burning World by Siri Hustvedt.

Happy Are the Happy by Yasmina Reza – 4.5

A series of vignettes told by a cast of characters whose lives intersect, sometimes day to day, sometimes tangentially.  Each chapter is self-contained as a short story (many could easily stand alone), yet combined they create a poignant, sharply observed whole.  Contrasting the private and public lives of the characters, the different selves they perceive and present, and the inherent soap opera of the family, this short novel is seething with personality and humanity, conflict and subtlety.

Another translation, this one is as natural as can be while maintaining the innate French-ness of the author and her characters.  Wonderful stuff; I enjoyed the writing and the story immensely.

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