“One hundred percent scary” – Where Love Begins by Judith Hermann

jhwlbHermann’s relative lack of acclaim in the Anglophone literary world is one of many depressing examples of the under-appreciation of translated fiction around these parts: while her books are available here in the UK, and while, when noticed, they’re highly praised, they’re not exactly noticed very much, which is ridiculous, given both the quality of the work itself and the buzz she generates back home in Berlin. (But then, hey, she’s a woman writing about Serious Things, and she’s into short fiction – both terrible career moves, PR-wise, in the good old world of British supermarket book charts.) Her 2009 book, Alice, was a collection of stories about death, linked by the presence in each of the eponymous protagonist; both beautifully composed and thematically uncompromising, it’s a great introduction to Hermann’s prose style, and a handy primer for the kind of deceptively simple writing and disturbing subject matter you’ll find in her latest novel, Where Love Begins.

Here we’ve got Stella, a private nurse, who’s got a husband, Jason, who works away from home as a builder, and a daughter, Ava, who’s at kindergarten. Stella lives in a housing development, doesn’t particularly know her neighbours, spends her spare time phoning or writing to her old friend, Clara, who’s similarly married in a far-away part of the country. Her life is pretty circumscribed by the limits of her house, the cycle to work, Ava’s routine, and Jason’s back-and-forth schedule; she’s thinking about quitting her job, about trying something else, but she’s not doing too badly for now and the rhythm of the days is carrying her onwards. And then she meets Mister Pfister – or, rather, he meets her. Mister Pfister is a neighbour, but not one Stella’s ever registered before: one day, he rings her doorbell and asks if they can have ‘a conversation’. Stella, who doesn’t know him, and who’s a little freaked out to be abruptly confronted like this in her own home, refuses. And it escalates from there: he keeps ringing, he leaves letters and messages in her box, he turns up at her workplace – all, of course, when Jason’s absent. So what do you do in these circumstances? Is it harassment, or are you over-reacting? Are you being hostile and unnecessarily defensive, or are you protecting your home and your privacy? Do you confront him or ignore him? Where does the line fall between obsession and burgeoning love?

Intense, right? Hermann’s prose, though, is very, very simple: the book’s one of those easy reads that lulls you even as it draws you into deeply creepy territory – just as, in fact, Mister Pfister’s quiet insistent and diffident manner makes Stella, and the reader, question her own reactions. It’s written in the present tense, too – another seductive technique, one that reveals nothing of what’s to come, which, again, cranks up the tension so that by the end of what’s really not a very long book at all, you’ll feel as strung out as Stella herself. Here, then, we’ve got a novel in which very little actually happens – some doorbell action, some unwanted mail, various trips to see Stella’s patients, a few inconclusive exchanges with friends/colleagues/acquaintances, and minimal interaction between the protagonist and antagonist – and in which, yet, we’re made, almost unwittingly, to confront a whole bunch of thought-provoking ideas about intimacy, boundaries, vulnerability, and (maybe most interesting) the ways in which our physical environments (Stella’s innocuous housing development) affect the ways in which we interact, or otherwise, with the world.

Any Cop?: Don’t be fooled by this book’s ostensible simplicity: it might be easy to skip through very fast, but it’s one hundred percent scary. We loved it, but if, say, you’ve got a pal who’s about to move to a semi-countryside estate, perhaps in Germany, we’re not sure this’d be a very appropriate house-warming gift…

 

Valerie O’Riordan


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