Where Love Begins by Judith Hermann (transl. Margot Bettauer Dembo): A comfortable life made uncomfortable

Cover image In the very early days of this blog I reviewed Judith Hermann’s beautifully put together set of interlinked short stories, Alice, under the banner ‘Small but Perfectly Formed’. The same heading could stand for her new novel, Where Love Begins, although its subject matter is quite different. Alice explored grief and how we endure it, both from the point of view of the bereft and those around them who perform small acts of kindness yet feel impotent in their efforts to soften this hardest of blows. This new, equally accomplished novel takes a more sinister route with its portrayal of Stella whose unremarkable life is turned upside down by a stalker.

Thirty-seven years old, Stella is married to Jason who she met on the plane she caught home from her best friend Clara’s wedding after catching the bridal bouquet. They live a prosaic enough life on a housing development in a small German town. Stella is a nurse, making home visits to the sick and elderly some of whom are grateful, others not so much, while Jason’s work often takes him away. Their five-year-old daughter, Ava, happily attends the local kindergarten. Stella misses Clara, looking forward to her letters and remembering their heady days sharing a flat together. She thinks about her marriage and how she met Jason who took her hand, calming her fears as the plane took off. One day the doorbell rings and Stella finds herself reluctant to answer it using the intercom instead. The man outside says he just wants to talk to her but Stella tells him to go away. So begins the almost daily visits from Mr Pfister who drops perplexing things into her mail box – a ball of twine, a home burnt CD, an empty yellow envelope.

In other hands this might have been just another somewhat clichéd thriller – a woman stalked by disturbed man with perhaps a horrible finale thrown in – but Hermann’s novel is much more complex than that. In her coolly elegant, quietly contemplative style she explores an ordinary life with all its discontents, small regrets and difficulties suddenly unsettled by the unwanted attentions of a stranger. What suspense there is low-key – disquieting rather than nail-biting and all the more effective for it. Hermann writes in that understated way that I find so impressive occasionally punctuated by vivid images: ‘A flock of sparrows flies up out of the trees in the garden across the way, as if hurled into the sky by a large hand’; in summer ‘the warm air enters the house like a guest’. The intimate almost tender exchanges between the carer and the cared for are delicately described, like an artist’s sketches, and Ava’s prattle is beautifully caught. All this is, of course, sensitively translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo whose work on Alice I so admired. Altogether a very fine piece of work. Time to explore Hermann’s backlist, I think.

6 thoughts on “Where Love Begins by Judith Hermann (transl. Margot Bettauer Dembo): A comfortable life made uncomfortable”

  1. The fact that this sounds like it could happen to any of us makes it all the more creepy (as opposed to a fast-paced thriller, which I would be more likely to feel like it would never happen to me). Nice review! I will also have to look into Alice.

    1. Thanks, Naomi. You’re right – what happens to Stella is that unsettling thing – the product of random circumstance – which makes it all the more powerful.

  2. I have this on my TBR pile and I am saving it for when I’m hungry for a dark and haunting thriller. I will let you know when I finally read it, seeing your praise for it.

    1. I’ll be interested to know what you think, Elena. Thrillers aren’t really my territory but this one definitely pushed my literary buttons.

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