One evening in Germany in the late 1980s, a mother and her two children sit around the dinner table, expecting the father home from a business trip any minute. As time passes, the teenage daughter ponders her family and her childhood, and slowly reveals the ugly truth behind the facade of a normal family life.
This is a short book that functions on two levels. On the surface, it is the portrait of a family that looks rather ordinary at first glance, but the more you learn about it the more glaring the dysfunction becomes, and it is slowly revealed that the father is at the root of the issues because he is a tyrant in every way. At first, it seems that he is just the more or less stereotypical patriarch of a family in which gender roles are set in stone, which was, after all, still very common in the 80s. Little by little, however, the true extent of his reign of terror becomes apparent, and it is vast.
On top of that, it also works as an allegory for the collapse of East Germany. Vanderbeke herself said, “I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.” What I liked in this context was the way in which Vanderbeke showed the impact of the unusual situation on the family. Emotionally, they are in turmoil, but mentally and physically, they are almost paralyzed, because on one hand, the disappearance of the father frees them, but on the other hand, such a huge change is utterly terrifying and hard to believe at first, and it is easy to imagine that people in East Germany must have felt like this when the end of their oppressor drew near.
Overall, it is a rather grim tale, but suffused with black humour, and the ending is uplifting in any case. The whole story is narrated by the daughter who switches between diving into her memories and describing what is happening at the table, which means that the book basically consists of run-on sentences without much punctuation that sometimes span more than a page. Because it’s so short, I think it is best to just read it in one go, even though it is a bit taxing due to the style, and I admit that there was one moment in which I thought that it could have been even shorter. Still, it is a great book that not only succeeds in its multilayered approach, but also perfectly captures the zeitgeist of that time and place.
CBR12 Bingo: Book Club