‘Daheim’ (‘At Home’) by Judith Hermann (Review)

While her work isn’t to everyone’s taste, I’ve been a fan of German writer Judith Hermann ever since reading Alice as part of my Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shadowing many, many moons ago, and I always keep an eye out for her new books.  Luckily enough, once the paperback edition of her latest novel arrived, I was able to get a copy for a decent price, and having enjoyed a first read a couple of months back, I decided to leave the review for a reread during German Literature Month.  It’s an interesting novel, one with very distinct Hermann traits, but also an enjoyable, slow-moving story that takes us to the country and forces us to admire the rather dull scenery…

Daheim (At Home) is a novel focusing on a nameless female protagonist in her fifties living somewhere on the northern coast of Germany.  Divorced, but still in loose contact with her ex-husband and her daughter (off travelling the world), she’s drifted off herself, ending up in a village and working at the seasonal bar her elder brother runs, when he can be bothered.

She’s a city woman with few ties and no roots who now finds herself in a rather different kind of place.  Slowly, she starts to meet new people and adjusts to living life at a rather different pace in this new stage of her life.  There’s a slight sense of apathy, or disinterest, in how she passes her days, but this is soon to change.  You see, even when everything seems to have passed you by, there’s always a chance of starting over again, as long as you’re prepared to seize the opportunity when it arrives.

Hermann is one of those writers whose characters seem to age as they do, and the people described in Daheim are far from the twenty-something dreamers and lovers of Summerhouse, Later.  Here we have a woman whose best days are behind her, or so she thinks.  This a new start in an unknown place, but having left a long-term relationship behind, she’s not really expecting her life to take any more major turns.

That it does is due to the influence of the local brother and sister pair, Mimi and Arild.  Mimi is a bundle of energy, sweeping the newcomer up before she knows it, and from nude swimming in the sea and long evenings with a bottle of wine comes a friendship that almost surprises her.  It’s through Mimi that she gets to know Arild, a taciturn, slightly unapproachable farmer, and while recognising his flaws, the narrator is attracted by his strength, his down-to-earth nature and a lack of complications.

The first part of the book has the woman coming to terms with her new life.  Initially, she enjoys the feeling of solitude, living alone without needing to take the feelings of others into account.  However, her view gradually shifts in this lonely climate, especially when she finds her front door wide open one morning after a blustery night:

Ich begann, mich zu fürchten.  Oder anders – von dieser Nacht an hatte ich einen gewissen Respekt, von dem ich dachte, er wäre der Preis für das Alleinesein.
p.29 (Fischer Verlag, 2022)

I began to be afraid.  Or put differently – from this night on I had a certain respect that I thought was the price to pay for being alone. ***
(my translation)

Perhaps it’s this nervousness that makes her ripe for what follows, the almost ridiculously quick progress of her relationship with Arild, and the ease with which she allows herself to become part of the family.

While describing the woman’s present, Hermann never neglects her past, and Daheim frequently looks back at the narrator’s life before moving to the village.  We learn of her relationship with her ex, Otis, and the rather bizarre story from her youth that begins the novel reveals much about her character, and how much of a risk-taker she is(n’t).  There’s never any doubt that this is a woman with a level head, knowing that her wild days are behind her:

Er wollte. dass ich wusste, wie schön Mimi einmal gewesen war.  Damals.
Er sagte, sie hatte eine wirklich tolle Figur.  Diese prächtigen dicken Haare.  Sie sah wirklich ausgesprochen gut aus.
Ich sagte, das taten wir alle.

He wanted me to know how beautiful Mimi had once been.  Back then.
He said she had a really good figure.  That wonderful thick hair.  She looked incredibly attractive.
I said we all did. ***

And yet, in the form of her relationship with Arild, she’s now being reminded that it’s never too late, and that happiness can be found in the unlikeliest of places.

On the whole, Daheim is fairly stark and simple, a book of loosely connected scenes following the protagonist’s life through the year.  The simplicity extends to the old house she lives in, the bleak landscape and Arild’s rather spartan lifestyle.  The emphasis here is on the bare minimum, just what is needed to get by, with the contrast with Otis, a prepper who hoards whatever he finds for the apocalypse he’s sure is around the corner, clear and almost startling.

The effect this has on the reader is to produce a sensation of calm.  Daheim is a relaxing book, one that’s unhurried and unfolds at its own pace, and the reader, like the narrator, is encouraged to take it easy:

Ich versuche, auf acht Stunden Schlaf zu kommen, ich nehme mir die Zeit, meinen Tee im Bett zu trinken, bevor ich in den Tag gehe.  Ich arbeite, koch mir etwas zu essen, lese mein Buch.  Es wird langsam warm hier, und bei Flut gehe ich manchmal schwimmen.  Wenn ich das einrichten kann.  Ich fahre mit dem Rad zur Arbeit und mit dem Rad zurück ins Haus. (p.60)

I try to get my eight hours of sleep, I take the time to drink my cup of tea in bed before I start the day.  I work, make myself something to eat, read my book.  It’s gradually getting warmer here, and at high tide I sometimes go swimming.  When I can fit it in.  I go to work on my bike and then cycle home again. ***

This does mean that there’s not much of a plot really, so if that’s what you like, perhaps Hermann’s book is to be avoided.  Even when things do happen, they just happen – they don’t lead anywhere or have any great effect on the direction the story is taking.

I’m not sure if a translation is in the pipeline, and I’m not convinced this would be for everyone, but even on a second read, I quite enjoyed Daheim.  It’s a simple story of a woman finding love, and a second lease on life, without really looking for it (or even getting that excited about it).  I wouldn’t say Hermann is up there with my favourite G-Lit writers, but there’s enough here to keep me looking out for the next one, and if you have enjoyed her work before (there’s a similar feel here to her previous novel, Where Love Begins), you could certainly do worse than give this one a try…

…when it makes it into English, of course.


4 thoughts on “‘Daheim’ (‘At Home’) by Judith Hermann (Review)

  1. Thank you, Tony, and here is another author I am hearing about for the first time through your blog. It sounds like a slow burn that I would love. I don’t read in German, so from her novels that have been translated to English, which do you recommend?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Daphna – Funnily enough, she’s only written two novels as such, with her early work more oriented towards short stories. Many readers would probably recommend her debut collection, ‘Summerhouse, Later’, but I have a soft spot for ‘Alice’, a set of five linked stories featuring the same woman at the heart of each piece. It is a bit grim, though, as they’re all about death!

      Liked by 1 person

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