Review: The Blind Side Of The Heart

A tale of almost unendurable gloom


By Julia Franck
Harvill Secker, £12.99

To what extent are our lives shaped by forces beyond our control? In the fictional world of Julia Franck, the answer is: almost entirely. It makes for a thoroughly dispiriting read, as we follow the life of Helene, born in the early 20th century in a provincial German town to a Jewish mother and German father, through to the aftermath of the Second World War.

Casual antisemitism and small-town snobbery isolates Helene’s already highly strung mother to the point of insanity and, when the First World War breaks out and her father goes off to fight on the eastern front, she and her older sister Martha are left to fend for themselves and care as best they can for their terrifyingly erratic mother.

Resourceful, courageous, clever and dutiful, Helene is an endearing character, but love proves a consistently mixed blessing, trapping her in relationships that are frequently, if unintentionally, abusive and cruel. Even when the sisters escape to Berlin in the ’20s, their lives are heavily circumscribed by dependency on their rich, but debauched aunt, herself entangled in a series of destructive love affairs.

The inexorable rise of National Socialism casts a darkening shadow over Helene’s life, but she seems hardly aware of the social and political forces around her, so preoccupied is she by the need to earn a living, cope with her sister’s drug addiction, and fend off the unwanted advances of her aunt’s lovers.

When love finally does come her way, it is only to be snatched away in the most arbitrary way, yet with devastating consequences that are all too precise. Marriage soon after to an eagerly officious Nazi engineer saves Helene from the death camps, but her life is by now a living hell, which even love for her son, and his passionate attachment to her, cannot redeem. Suffering, Franck is intent on showing us, is inevitably passed from one generation to the next.

Franck writes within a European literary tradition that seeks to recreate human life as it is experienced through the body, and the novel is dense with descriptions of physical sensation. Bodies are used, abused, pleasured, colonised and wrecked, sometimes with intentional cruelty, but just as often in the name of love. The heart, we are left in no doubt, is as vulnerable as any other part of the body, and can be broken as quickly or as slowly.

Helene’s body serves as a powerful metaphor for the gradual but total demoralisation of a nation, and on publication in Germany, the novel won the German Book Prize, the country’s most prestigious literary award. At the level of a story, however, what happens to Helene — body and soul — is almost too depressing to be endured.

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