It seems as if we’ve been on our Independent Foreign Fiction Prize journey for a good while now, but there’s many a book to review yet before we sleep. Today we’re returning to Germany for a little book all about a certain woman. Her name? Well…
Alice by Judith Hermann (translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo, I read the original German version)
What’s it all about?
Alice is a novel (of sorts) consisting of five loosely-connected stories set at five different points in the life of Alice, a young(ish) German woman. The five stories are given the names of five different men – and with good reason. Where many writers would have chosen to explore Alice’s character through her relationships with the gentlemen in question though, Hermann has a slightly different take on proceedings. You see, in each of the sections, the man whose name graces it is destined to die…
This book then is about how Alice copes with the loss of these men – ex-boyfriends, family friends, relatives, partners. As Stu quipped, there’s very much a feeling of the Angela Lansburys about poor Alice, with death stalking any man she becomes acquainted with. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one friend may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose five looks like downright negligence…
Many of my fellow shadow panellists have taken this approach in their reviews of Alice, and about half-way through the collection I could see why. By the middle of the third story, it all seemed a little familiar: another bedside, another man about to shuffle off this mortal coil, another final visit for Alice to make… As I moved onto the fourth of the stories, one dealing with the death of an uncle (before Alice had even been born), I was mentally resigning myself to writing a politely-negative review.
However, by the end of the last story, it had all come together. While the first three stories did blend into each other a little, the fourth represented a turning point in the novel. For the first time, Alice appeared to be pro-active, taking control of her life and actively seeking out information about her dead uncle. When it came to the final part, it felt as if this is what the book had been building to; a series of lesser upsets helping Alice to cope with a final, major loss.
It also helped that the final chapter brought together the loose ends, repeat performances from some of the minor characters from the first four stories assisting in connecting the different stages of Alice’s life. The simple, elegant, descriptive language of the book is a metaphor for the clear thinking Alice becomes capable of in the final section. While she seems a little lost and directionless earlier in the book, searching for a meaning to it all in the face of some pretty traumatic experiences, by the final story she appears to have recognised that life is actually about living, about noticing the things around you. The extended description of her lazy morning at the swimming pool, the frequent mentions of flowers, the light, the smells…
There’s something very Japanese about Alice, the subdued, implicit nature of the book making it hard to really understand, or sympathise with, the title character. I can understand why many of the people I’ve spoken to about the book don’t really like it, but I’m probably a little more invested than most given the time I spent in Germany – there’s a lot here that’s very familiar. I’ve heard that this is not Hermann’s best work; however, there’s enough here for me to give her other books a try. And that can’t be a bad recommendation 🙂
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
No. On my list, it’s currently about seventh (of twelve), and I can’t see it staying there until the end of my longlist reading. It never quite manages to achieve what it sets out to do, despite its elegance and poignancy. It’s one I’ll probably read again at some point (and it persuaded me to buy one of her earlier books), but I was honestly surprised to see it make the shortlist. As for my fellow shadow panellists – their reaction was somewhat stronger 😉
Will it go all the way?
Not if the opinions of my fellow panellists have anything to do with it! While most of the books on the longlist have had both their supporters and detractors, Alice has probably been the one book that the crew has universally found dull. We were all dumbstruck that Scenes from Village Life didn’t make the cut and disappointed that Next World Novella is no longer in the running. I was very pleased that Please Look After Mother didn’t get through, but I have a strong feeling that Alice is the token female, German, short story entry, knocking off three categories in one short book. It will not win.
Another one polished off, only four more to go. Next time, we’re staying in Europe, and it’s going to be huge. I mean *huge*. No, I mean ***HUGE***!
You know what’s coming…