It’s November again, and that (of course) means it’s time for one of my favourite blogging events of the year, German Literature Month! This year’s event, hosted by Lizzy Siddal, encourages us to look for books originally written in the German language, no matter which country they come from, and I always look forward to getting in a solid month of German-language reading (not that I need an excuse for that, really).
However, due to a quirk of fate (i.e. a request from a publisher), this year’s posts begin with a review of something translated from German, rather than a read in the original language. It’s the second book in English from a well-known writer, and as you’ll see, it makes for an emotional and fiery start to GLM XII…
Nino Haratischvili’s epic novel The Eighth Life (For Brilka) made quite a splash when it appeared in English a few years back, and the German/Georgian writer is back with another work that, while shorter, is perhaps even better. My Soul Twin (translated by Charlotte Collins, review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications) is a story about two people whose lives are inextricably interwoven, even though it would perhaps be for the best if they could sever the ties that bind them together.
The novel is told through the eyes of Stella, a woman living in Hamburg with her charming, successful husband Mark and her lovable son Theo. Theirs is a happy life and marriage, but all this is forgotten immediately on the return to Germany of Ivo, a prodigal son if ever there was one. Ivo is Stella’s adopted brother, but also, as we are soon to learn, her former lover, and there’s little doubt that his return will shatter the comfortable world Stella retreated to after his departure.
One part of the story shows Ivo’s return and Stella’s instant surrender to his charms, fully aware that in doing so, she’s destroying her marriage, and risking losing her son:
Every object in the apartment seemed to remind me of things I had forgotten: fresh fruit, fresh vegetables. It all seemed so peaceful, so alarmingly perfect. The polished floor tiles, the neat pile of newspapers by the sofa, the freshly ironed shirts on the stool, the washed-up cups. And me in the middle. I, who was destroying all this, who wanted to throw it all away, who didn’t seem to notice all the effort that went into these details; I, the bad mother; I, the woman who, after a conversation with her husband, had driven drunk to another man in a sleazy hotel and slept with him; I, the journalist who didn’t do her job, who talked about things no one understood or was interested in.
How easy it must be to condemn me.
p.103 (Scribe Publications, 2022)
Swinging between her reawakened feelings and her guilt at hurting those close to her, she reaches out to Ivo all the same, and even when she’s warned by her family (her deadbeat Dad and her bourgeois sister) to keep away from the visitor, she’s simply unable to do the right, sensible thing and keep Ivo at arm’s length.
The other side to the story seeks to explain this inability to withdraw, taking us back to their childhood to examine their shared history. There are several hints of a traumatic incident that seals their fate, binding them forever. As much as Stella tries over the years to move on, Ivo’s magnetism, and her frustrated desire, are enough to make her betray partners again and again, always coming back to a man who hurts her but makes her feel alive.
In many ways, My Soul Twin is an enthralling, engaging work, emotional, tense and often brutal. The reader is inside Stella’s head as she tries to work through her feelings, but any decision is thrown out of the window the moment she’s in Ivo’s presence:
“I’ve tried for years, ever since that shitty day on the beach. I’ve tried to do everything right, the way you think is right, and I realise now that this right is only right for you. For me, it’s totally, utterly wrong. So I won’t keep my mouth shut. If it’s going to hurt, let’s have it all at once. That I can cope with, but this – not like this.” (p.159)
The mixture of animal magnetism and childhood guilt that surround Ivo are a heady combination she’s unable to resist.
I’ve little doubt that Haratischvili’s second novel in English will be a success, one that will thrill most readers as it’s an impressive work (with an even better cover). There’s more than a hint of Wuthering Heights to the book in the quasi-incestuous, almost masochistic, nature of the relationship at its core. Like its Victorian counterpart, the book abounds in mental torment, but with a fair bit of physical pain, too. Stella is wracked by her guilt, and comes to believe that the pain she feels is a form of atonement for her past ‘sins’.
Yet how much any individual reader enjoys this will depend very much on their attitude towards Stella. For me, My Soul Twin, while an obviously impressive work, made for a painful, challenging reading experience. It’s all about Stella, and how much we can empathise, sympathise, with a woman whose husband is just the latest in a line of men she has betrayed for Ivo – which is not the type of behaviour I can condone, to put it mildly. Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Effi Briest – you can add Stella to that list of ‘heroines’, and no matter what Haratischvili tells us about the past she shares with Ivo, it’s not enough to make me forgive her, or even understand her.
I’m sure other readers will be more willing to accept Stella’s predicament, though, and more likely to fall for Ivo. The writer draws his character of the attractive, plain-speaking wanderer well, adding a fragility that Stella can’t help but want to protect. The original title Mein sanfter Zwilling (My Gentle Twin) perhaps describes Ivo’s attractions more accurately than the new one does, even if this gentle side of Ivo is often contrasted with an icy cruelty.
Everything comes to a head in the last third of the book, on a trip to Georgia (unsurprisingly) where we discover the truth about what happened all those years ago, and where Ivo attempts to make Stella see that she’s punishing herself for nothing. As we finally understand why Stella has made all these choices, one final twist provides a dramatic, heart-rending climax to an absorbing story. Even if I struggled with it at times, it’s hard to deny that My Soul Twin is an excellent read, and one I suspect will have more readers in the Anglosphere looking out for the next Haratischvili work to make it into English.