Monday, February 9, 2015

The Girl Who Wasn't There, by Ferdinand von Schirach

Little, Brown, 2014
216 pp

originally published as Tabu, 2013
translated by Anthea Bell


I have no idea when this book is going to be published in the US, but it's definitely one worth looking into. Although I'm posting about it in the same space as other crime fiction, I'm not exactly sure that particular moniker fits this novel.   Whatever you want to call it, it is an interesting work that in my opinion takes reader expectations and turns them on their heads in a very big way. What it centers on is truth and reality; however,  having read von Schirach before, I'm not surprised to see his ongoing themes of the nature of crime, the judicial process, and the nature of guilt repeated in this novel.

The way this book is set up is genius -- sadly, I can't really recount much of the story without giving too much away.  What I can say is that von Schirach carefully guides his readers through the story of Sebastian von Eschburg, who as a young boy lived with his parents in a lakeside home up until the time his father kills himself.  His mother had always been inattentive to him, preferring to bestow her love on her horses, but his father spent time with him, for example, taking him hunting. On one such trip, Sebastian watches his father bring down a deer -- and the experience is one that stays with him for a very long time, as will his father's suicide, which his mother tried to convince him was just a bad dream.  She also tries to convince him that his father was merely cleaning his gun and it went off accidentally, something Sebastian knows is not true. The house, of course, is sold, and Sebastian returns to the boarding school that he will call home for the bulk of his childhood.  When he is finished with school he comes back home -- his mother has married  a genuine creep and all three of them know that living with mom and her new husband is not in the cards for Sebastian. He takes up the photography profession, and it isn't long until he becomes known for his work. He eventually comes to have quite a name in the art world, money, and a lovely woman beside him, but there is something quite dark deep down inside of Sebastian that prevents him from happiness. He also knows that if the situation with the woman becomes serious, he will end up "hurting" her.  He is a very strange person, and it will come as no surprise to the reader at all, given his past, that he ends up becoming the only suspect in a murder.  (This is not a spoiler by the way; a lot of this outline is on the back cover).  While in jail, Sebastian requests that Konrad Biegler become his defense attorney, and Biegler, who is recuperating at a Swiss hotel for burnout, takes the opportunity to get back into the courtroom once again. But as he will discover, and not only from his client, there is truth, and then there is truth.

If that all sounds cryptic, it is meant to be -- to tell is to spoil so it's one that is best experienced on one's own. I will say that long before this story was over I had figured things out (hoping as usual that I was wrong) -- but not the who or the how, and I was still blown away.   Throughout the book  I was entirely wrapped up in von Eschburg's world of darkness and pain almost to the point of claustrophobia, and truthfully,  I enjoyed the getting there more than the reveal of the actual solution. von Schirach is a great storyteller, and while this book is very different than his The Collini Case, which I absolutely loved, there are a number of the same elements that are explored in The Girl Who Wasn't There. This is an incredibly intelligent novel that demands a reread -- and after the second time through, the book made much more sense.   What he does here is so different than the norm that it was actually refreshing from a reader point of view.  As noted earlier, it's not so much a crime fiction novel, but I can't exactly explain why without ruining things. It is, however, one of the better books I've read so far this year and is certainly a candidate for favorite books of 2015.  Definitely recommended.


  1. I was a bit underwhelmed by The Collini Case, tbh, but this one sounds more appealing - I'll look out for it.

    1. I enjoyed The Collini Case. This one is very different -- and has received a lot of mixed reviews. I'm always looking out for something on the strange side, though -- this one fits the bill for sure.


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