The girl who wasn't there is a provocative, highly engaging, challenging and complex 216 page novel juxtaposing the worlds of art and justice. The two halves of book are complete contrast to each other - one slow and painful and the other fast and thrilling. Abstract writing style makes it involving for reader as he is as much part of the story as the writer. Slightly overwhelming for the genre but a great read
- The girl who wasn’t there (In German, it is called Taboo)
- Author: Ferdinand von Schirach (Translated by Anthea Bell)
- Publisher: Little, Brown (8 Jan. 2015)
- Pages: 216
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1408705826
- ISBN-13: 978-1408705827
We are back with another book review this weekend. The Book that I am reviewing is called The girl who wasn’t there – English translation of the German book – Taboo. This was suggested to be by a German friend who insisted that I should read it, now that English translation is out in the market. It is also surprising that the English translated version is more popular that the native German, something you don’t usually expect. Anyways, lets get started with the review. The Book is written by Ferdinand von Schirach, a defense attorney by profession and acclaimed author of The Collini Case. Before getting started, I want to get a point across. The review might feel like an enigma because I cannot say much about the plot without spoiling things up. This is one such novel which slowly builds up your expectation and later blows you away when you least expect it. The setting of the book is appealing and the main character’s world is extremely dark, painful and melancholy. But the way it is painted on the pages of the book, it stays with you for a long time after the book is over. This loosely falls under the Crime fiction genre, but first the half of the book is anything but that. Also, there is huge difference between the way both halves of the book are – first half is slow, dark, poetic and second half is completely crazy – moving at breathtaking speed, from one mystery to another. And, when the final twist is revealed, you hardly have any breath left. Now, here is the plot. The first half tells the story of Sebastian von Eschburg, young Bavarian scion living with his parents in his lakeside home. Sebastian has a very different way of seeing the things around him. He perceives the colors around him in a different way than everyone else around him.
He saw what other people saw, but in his mind the colours were different. His nanny’s hands were cyan and amber; his hair, as he saw it, shone violet with a touch of ochre; his father’s skin was a pale greenish blue.
He is lonely and detached from the world. When he is 10, he is sent to a Swiss boarding school. One day, on a hunting trip with his father, he sees his father kill and gut a deer – he is unable to get over it for a long time. Later he sees his father commit suicide with the same shotgun, but his mother tells him that it was just a dream. He goes back to the school and when he returns, the house is sold and his mother is remarried. Sebastian moves away and takes up photography as a profession as it allows him to conceive and create worlds in a different light. His talent of seeing the world as an myriad overlay of spectrum of colors helps him in doing that.
He experimented until his pictures had the soft, warm tone that took the harshness out of all the other colors in his head.
Slowly, he is recognized for his work after one famous actress recommend her. As things begin to finally look up for him, he is accused of murder of a young woman with incriminating evidence found against him. That’s when plot shifts gear. Sebastian requests famous lawyer Konrad Biegler to represent him and the story shifts from Sebastian’s perspective of how he sees the world to how the world sees Sebastian. And then Biegler will soon realize that nothing is what it seems and truth is different than reality. I cannot divulge much details about the last 60-70 odd pages without ruining things, but the suspense towards the end pages will keep your feet. And this is right in the wheelhouse of Schirach, him being a defense attorney. The crime fiction and legal genre lovers will love the second half. So will mystery and thrill seeking readers.
The tone and writing style is very rare in this kind of a novel. The first half slowly traverses through the pages and feels like a barren vast landscape while second half figuratively burns through the pages, feeling like an amazon rain forest- full of surprises and unknowns to keep you highly alert and focused. You can feel that there is a jarring disconnect between the two halves and you might either hate it or love it. I am frustrated by this, but still love it. The first half felt more like a painting rather than a prose at times and I felt that things could probably speed up a little. Also, there is a lot of ambiguity in the first half. This is a complex read which involves great deal of involvement from the reader. The reader has to fill in a lot of blanks and as a result, a mental image of the protagonist is formed in the mind of the reader. In a way, it reminds us of our world today – How we perceive and make assumptions about people in our daily lives based on little bit of information we see or hear – a blurb somewhere, a snippet from an article. I could see the picture of Sebastian being formed in my mind as a result of how he is described in the first half and then challenged in the second half as mystery unfolded.
Overall, an interesting read which transcends through the genres seamlessly. At 216 pages, this is a short novel but not a light read in any sense. This is not an easily digestible mass fiction,as the genre might suggest, but an highly engaging, challenging and complex novel juxtaposing the worlds of art and justice. Based on second half alone, this is highly recommended for fans of legal and crime fiction genre. This is also suited for people who like ambiguity in their reading and love to complete parts of story from their own perspective. Could things be better? Sure, there could have been more poetic embellishment and a bit of flair in the first half. There are couple of subplots which could have been explored more. But all that pales in comparison to the provocative and entertaining tale with an enigmatic protagonist. Lastly, a shout out to the translator Anthea Bell – an excellent work and I am glad the message was not lost in translation.