“The village of Eschburg is halfway between Munich and Salzburg, a little from the major roads. Only a few stones of the castle up on the hill that once gave the village its name still stand today. An Eschberg had been Bavarian ambassador to Berlin in the eighteenth century, and when he came back he built the new house beside the lake.”
Ferdinand von Schirach’s second novel, The Girl Who Wasn’t There, tells the story of Sebastian von Eschberg, a descendent and the last in the line of Bavarian nobility. The first half of the novel is primarily biographical, with the reader gaining an intimacy of sorts with this peculiar and enigmatic character. Eschberg’s childhood is somewhat Worthwordsian, and becomes crucial to the narrative at the story’s highpoint. Growing up in his family’s stately-but-now-dilapidated home, Eschberg is able to enjoy an unrestrained childhood spent at the local lake with his friends and in his bedroom avidly devouring his favourite books, his parents seemingly disinterested in their son’s activity. That is before he is carted off to a Jesuit boarding school in the nearby Swiss mountains, a chapter of the novel that isn’t much explored by Schirach. Once his education is over and done with, Eschberg rocks up in Berlin where he swiftly apprentices himself to a celebrated and talented photographer. Here, his immersive personality prospers and he studies hard under his master to gather as much knowledge about his art as possible. As he has throughout his young life, he lives a solitary existence, gobbling up books and mastering his newfound passion. Before long, Eschberg begins to show great promise as a photographer and decides he is to open his own studio in Berlin, much to his master’s discontent. His natural talent and dedication to his subject quickly pay off; Eschberg establishes himself as an accomplished photographer, and his reputation multiples as he becomes increasingly daring and challenging with his photography, moving away from commercial work to produce startling and intriguing photographic art.
At this stage, we are over halfway into the novel, and have a relatively detailed picture of our protagonist. There are two crucial and disturbing memories from his early childhood which pervade Eschberg as he grows up, but by the time we embark on the second half of the novel we know him to be a deeply introverted and intelligent person who has channelled his energies into becoming a subversive and reputed artist-photographer. Yet in this second half of the novel there is an abrupt shift in pace and style, and the reader is thrown into the middle of a horrific murder case with Sebastian von Eschberg as the principal, and only, suspect. The trial is a black hole for global media, sucking in all television channels, newspapers, social media sites, with most using Eschberg’s challenging, and often erotic, art photography to make assumptions of his guilt. When I first read about the murder, the details of which are nauseating, complex, and insinuate an intelligent and inventive murderer, it was not difficult for me to comprehend that Eschberg was capable of such a crime. Although he does not show any violent or sadistic tendencies throughout the entirety of the first half of the novel, there are particular episodes from his childhood that have clearly tainted his imagination, and some of these ideas seep out in his art. I think the dark, misty light that is shone on Eschberg for most of the novel makes the reader perceive Eschberg in a way that means we would not have too many qualms about associating the protagonist with the crime.
Although for some, the novel’s denouement might be a bit underwhelming, lacking excitement or drama, I found the whirlpool of imagery, metaphors and symbolism to be a minefield for the imagination, setting off trails of ideas. Above all, I think the ending challenges the reader and his/her expectations; as I’ve said above, I had no trouble envisaging Eschberg as a sadistic killer, but the Eschberg we come to known from the novel’s first section is every bit as lonely, harmless, and empathetic as he is enigmatic and complex. Why is it we can be so quick to pin our thinly built assumptions on him? Why do our negative impulses and sentiments so powerfully override the positives? Is it because we are reading a book categorised as ‘Crime Fiction’? I suspect not. We are frequently so swift to judge people we know absolutely nothing about, from snippets we read in the newspaper, a magazine or a twenty second feature on the six o’clock news. I haven’t read too much crime fiction, and it is a genre I would typically deem a form of mass entertainment, easily digestible and to be consumed preferably in the sun with a piña colada in the other hand. In The Girl Who Wasn’t There, however, Schirach addresses serious issues and topics: the role and involvement of the media in judicial processes; the effects of childhood trauma; the conflict of ‘justice’ and ‘work’ for a defence lawyer, and more. This novel isn’t a cheap thrill, but instead challenges the reader with a provocative tale about perception, justice and art.
In terms of style, the novel features quite bread-and-butter prose, composed mostly of simple syntax and clinical diction. Von Schirach is described as ‘one of Germany’s most proficient defence lawyers’, and this seems to be replicated in the precision of his literary style which does, on the whole, suit the style of the novel. There are sections, however, which I felt might have benefitted from a more ‘romantic’ or fantastical embellishment: the childhood narratives, for example, the sections detailing Eschberg’s unique ability to see the world in a rich spectrum of colours, or that describing the quite mesmerising and memorable sequence of the final video shown at the defence trial. Another thing that I would have preferred to be included was an exploration of Eschberg’s time at the peculiar Jesuit school in Switzerland. Schirach’s protagonist was, for me, truly the star of this book: dark, mysterious, lonely, a voracious reader, an astonishingly subversive and complex artist. I thought it a shame that there were no troubled tales of a precocious genius at school.
The ending, I felt, was quite abrupt, and I was sad that the novel was over. At 216 pages, it is a short novel and I believe there is definitely room for more flesh on the body. Having said that, and to completely contradict myself, I absolutely enjoyed the amount of ambiguity in the novel which leaves a great deal to the reader and his/her imagination. William Blake, the wonderful visionary that he was, believed that reading should be a two-party affair and that the reader should have just as much involvement in crafting the novel as the writer. A good novel should leave blank spaces that the reader should fill with his/her imagination, and I think this is true of The Girl Who Wasn’t There. On the whole, I feel that this is an engaging, entertaining but challenging novel, centred on a believable, enigmatic and complex protagonist. I would recommend The Girl Who Wasn’t There to any dedicated follower or crime or translated fiction, and I would love to hear how you think how this novel fits into the current crime fiction scene.
The Girl Who Wasn’t There, or Tabu in its original German, was voted The Guardian’s Thriller of the Week on the 18th January and is translated by Anthea Bell. Published in 2015 by Little, Brown, you can read an extract of the book here or buy the book in paperback here.
Thank you to Poppy Stimpson at Little, Brown Book Group for the review copy, and thank you for reading!