Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
Reviewed by Victoria Best
Well this is a curious book, and one that’s been divisive in the online reviews, with a fair few readers not getting it at all, or not liking what they get. I found it to be an intriguing, almost old-fashioned noir number that probably disconcerts because the main female character is forced by events into a passive imperiled relationship, something a lot of women readers might react negatively to. But in my mind, if you shot this in black and white and put it on a cinema screen, it would look perfectly at home. It’s an easy read, witty in places, quite clever in its resolution, and if you are happy to simply follow where a book takes you, without needing your own motivations to belong to the characters, then I think it’s an edgy pleasure.
Judith is a single 30-something, running her own lighting shop in Vienna with her sweet but shallow assistant, Bianca. She doesn’t have the best relationship to her family, but has a great group of friends, isn’t looking for her life to change, and seems to all intents and purposes, completely settled. But a chance encounter in a supermarket with a man who stands on her foot precipitates her into an intense relationship.
Hannes is older than Judith and an architect. There’s no particular sexual charge to the relationship for her, but Hannes is just so persistent. And whenever he sees her, he acts so bowled over, so devastated by love, that she can’t help but be flattered. They start to date and things seems okay initially, but even so there are indications that something really isn’t right with the man. When Judith visits his apartment for the first time she notes how:
Each object, including some dark antique pieces worth a considerable amount of money, had its own place and gave the impression it could not be moved. From his grandfather’s sofa you had a magnificent view of a monstrous ironing board, which was stationed in the middle of the room and illuminated by an energy-saving bulb in an ugly shade of milky-coffee-coloured glass. The kitchen was small and surgically clean, as in a catalogue. The crockery was hiding in the cabinets out of sheer terror that it might get used.
But Hannes is so charming. And pushy. Judith introduces him to her family and friends, all of whom he wins over effortlessly with a combination of thoughtful gifts and well-placed compliments. By now, Judith is wearying of the high-octane love Hannes gives her, and feeling guilty, too, because isn’t this what she is supposed to want? Seamless adoration? But following the promptings of some inner instinct, she tries to break things off with Hannes, who says yes, he understands, and continues pursuing her regardless. Her family and friends don’t understand her and express their disapproval. Judith becomes aware that Hannes continues to see them all behind her back, and gradually, her affection for him transforms into fear, as his determined stalker-ish behaviour freaks her out and the general approval for him in her intimate circle leaves her isolated and confused.
Poor Judith is misunderstood in a way that provokes a serious mental and emotional breakdown. She’s trapped on both sides; by her family and friends who are angry with her for the ‘dreadful’ way she’s treated Hannes, and by Hannes on the other, who will not take no for an answer, showers her with gifts, tries to arrange meetings via her treacherous family and makes her wary of going home for fear he might be lurking in a dark corner. In other words, Hannes really gets under Judith’s skin. The neat way he has stitched up her life leaves her in a state of terror. It seems like the most excessive punishment for a small mistake of vanity; she only dated him briefly, and tried to end it before it became a serious relationship. And yet, somehow, due to Hannes’s manoeuvring, she has lost confidence in every other social contact, and is swiftly losing touch with reality.
But then one lifeline offers a precarious hold on her sanity: Bianca, the assistant whom she has never rated before, is the only person who sees Hannes for what he is. Together, they must try and reassemble the shattered fragments of Judith’s world.
There’s a very European feel to this novel, with the dialogue running on in paragraphs rather than separated and indented, and the taut, clipped rhythm of the writing. You can read it fast, and it’s best consumed that way; gulped down in a couple of sessions as Judith descends into mental hell and then finds a path back out of it again. Feel free to dislike Hannes entirely (I certainly did); he more than gets his comeuppance at the end. This is a sleek, edgy novel, that might well make you look twice at the next man who pays you an unexpected compliment…
Daniel Glattauer, Forever Yours (Maclehose Press: September 2014) 978-0857052490, 272 pages, paperback.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books editors.