At the end of the war, Afra Zauner returns to her parents’ cottage on the edge of Mauther Forest. Unmarried, and pregnant. As she struggles to raise her child, her father’s shame, her mother’s fury and the loud whispers of the neighbours begin to weigh upon her. She doesn’t believe in her sin. But everyone else does. And someone brings judgement down upon her. Many years later, Hermann Müller is throwing a drunk out of his tavern. A traveller, who won’t stop ranting about a murder left unsolved, about police who never investigated. Out of curiosity, the file is reopened. And in the cold light of hindsight, a chilling realisation creeps upon the community. No-one ever atoned for Afra’s death. But her story is waiting to be told.
In homage to the style of this compelling but compact novel, mainly set in the rural surrounds of the German countryside in the post war period, I will keep this review relatively brief, to avoid plot spoilers. Everything you need to know in terms of plot can be gained from the synopsis, and truth be told, the plot seemed an almost secondary aspect of the book in terms of the weighty issues that Schenkel seeks to address in this slim volume. Indeed, I found the final resolution of the murder plot, a little unsatisfactory and slightly rushed, with the perpetrator of the crime having played an exceedingly minor role in the previous narrative, but no matter as there was still a treat in store…
I will rush quickly to the defence of the book for the sheer haunting beauty of its prose, which completely consumes you in its spare but absolutely precise style (enhanced even more by the wonderful translation by Anthea Bell). Andrea Maria Schenkel provides a cool touch to the overall emotion of the piece, but the emotions that are initially so relentlessly suppressed, burn brighter because of it. The tone of the piece is relatively unemotional, and at times the reader is hard pushed to empathise with Afra, but the way her murder and its aftermath are presented, the essential human themes of loss and mourning and the search for redemption come to the fore. With the reminiscences of those involved on the periphery of the original murder, Schenkel dispenses with the notion of a traditional and linear detective novel, with no detective to drive the story onwards. It is an interesting conceit, and one that I think works, as the book’s intention is to place us as readers at a closer proximity to the murder victim and the killer. Likewise, the issues that are brought to bear in the depiction of this small family unit, undone by murder, are carefully balanced as Schenkel incorporates some powerful themes, in what is ostensibly a relatively simple tale. There is a meditation on elderly mental degeneration, emotively described through the growing confusion of Afra’s father- who becomes the chief suspect in his daughter’s murder. Afra herself, is a single mother, and her son, the product of a dalliance with a foreigner, giving rise to the additional stigma of illegitimacy. Taken individually, any of these issues would give weight to whatever work of fiction they are incorporated in, but to meld these together within such a bijou novella, compounded by such full and round realisations of the central characters, is a sign of markedly clever and skilful writing. A slim read, yes, but containing more than some books can conjure up in 300 pages or more.
(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)