"After [Johann] died, Alice began getting rid of his things. Putting away, giving away, throwing away, selling. Keeping. A kind of excavation project, uncovering the layers, the various colours, materials, eras; in the end there would be nothing to salvage, nothing except for the fact that [Johann] was dead. That's what it boiled down to. It wasn't the worst of jobs."
Even in translation -- a fine one by Margot Bettauer Dembo -- there is a rhythm to this, a rightness, a matter-of-fact sense of calm. No, not the worst of jobs; just take your time. Loss is best coped with in small practical ways, which bring their own memories, their own rewards. If I told you that this entire novel consists of five separate but interconnected stories, each centered around the death of a different man, you might think it depressing, but no. The cover photo of a woman swimming in a mountain lake is totally to the point: the book is cleansing, bracing, exquisitely simple. These are ordinary lives here, described with the almost neutral objectivity of a Max Frisch by way of Peter Stamm. But the more you read, the more the stories fill out into a complete life, that of the central character, a Berliner known only as Alice.
The name "Johann" above is a place-holder. One of the chief delights in the novel is the way in which Judith Hermann has the reader gradually work out who each dying person is, and what his particular relationship is to Alice. In no particular order, we have an uncle, a former lover, a husband, and two close friends, one of her own generation, the other much older. Some of the deaths are expected, some not. The settings include Berlin, a rented apartment in Zweibrücken, and the Lago di Garda. It is not even clear in which order the five stories in the book occur; Alice seems to be anything from her twenties to her sixties; only in the final story are some of the relationships made clear. But it doesn't really matter; the emphasis in each story is not on the deaths but on Alice herself, her friends, and details of her current life. She emerges as a sympathetic woman, strong but no more special than the rest of us, and totally real. Forget that Hermann hangs her stories on the occurrence of death; this is a book about life. Ordinary life, and all the more beautiful because of it.