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3.2 out of 5 stars
Old Child and the Book of Words
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on 30 August 2011
This book collects Susan Bernofsky's translations of two novellas or short novels, originally published in German in 1999 and 2005 respectively. Neither is appearing in English for the first time.

Jenny Erpenbeck has attracted attention recently in the English-speaking world after Bernofsky's translation of 'Heimsuchung' (as 'Visitation') was short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. A reader familiar with 'Visitation' will find the atmosphere of these two earlier novellas similar. If you are completely new to Erpenbeck, the most obvious point of similarity will be that both 'The Old Child' and 'The Book of Words' are constructed around child protagonists (though the former is a third-person and the latter a first-person narrative). In both cases the simplicity and transparency of a child's world is slowly revealed to be illusory: these are children with whom something is terribly wrong.

Erpenbeck has a real talent for establishing the reader within the comfortable familiarity of the everyday before allowing brief glimpses of the 'unheimlich' that gradually accumulate into inescapable horror. She works at least partly within an older German tradition of folk and fairy tales that mix mundanity with the bizarre in a similarly disconcerting way. Stylistically, her prose is both simple and highly wrought, exploiting the incantatory properties of repetition and the ironic possibilities of the multiple meanings of commonplace words. She rewards the reader's attention: these short books are not be rushed.

Less immediately obvious is the fact that she is a deeply political writer. Brought up in East Germany, she understands the way in which the political penetrates every aspect of social existence, especially those from which we wish it to be absent.

The two novellas deal with specifically modern German themes of memory and forgetting, guilt and complicity, identity and refusal of identity, but their resonance is not geographically restricted. Although 'The Old Child' is set in Germany, outside a city that may or may not be modern Dresden, 'The Book of Words' takes place in an unnamed South American country in which it seems that certain German exiles and tendencies may have found fertile soil. Erpenbeck's gaze is the polar opposite of the averted eye: it is a gaze that demands that we do not look away, and insists that even innocence has a price.

[235 pages, not the stated 192, including a brief Afterword by the translator about 'The Book of Words'.]
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VINE VOICETOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 November 2010
I saw this book being reviewed on Mariella Frostrup's Book Show and thought it looked interesting. The person recommending it made it sound rather like Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, a kind of reworking of folk and fairy tales with a grown up slant. I love The Bloody Chamber, and thought I might love this.

I was wrong.

This book contains two, short novellas. One is a story about a girl who is found on the street clutching a bucket in her hand. She is taken to a children's home where she stays, professing to know nothing of her past or anything about who she is. The story seems to be an exploration of what makes and shapes the self.

The second novella is about a girl who lives in an unnamed country which seems to be under the grip of some kind of dictatorship in which people are disappeared and the world is constantly shifting in response to rules and dictates which appear out of nowhere. The girl struggles to make sense of the world with words that constantly lose their meaning or which are reinvented.

The writing is dense and dreamlike, surreal and complex. Nothing is explained, things start and end arbitrarily and characters flit in and out with no relation to each other. The mood is quite sombre and full of violent and unsettling images.

One of the problems of knowing what the text is about is that it is in translation. The translator's notes at the end of the book provide some clues which would have been more helpful had I read them at the beginning of the book.

I found the work hard to read, unpleasant, unsettling and unfulfilling. It was quite Joycean in places, but even Joyce (except for Finnegan's Wake) has clearer structures and narratives that contain his surrealism. This seemed lacking here.
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on 2 December 2010
Like zombies and vampires, there are way too many books - almost exclusively by female authors - about traumatised childhoods and 'dark secrets from the past.' Maybe blame the misery memoir cult, but it does seem that us women like to write and read about how dreadful our lives are, or have been. We seem, if recent literary trends are to be believed (and I don't think they are) to want to wallow in our own degredation and humiliation: from Anne Enright to Sadie Jones to Andrea Levy to these works by Jenny Erpenbeck, it's an endless humour-free litany of bad treatment by bad people. In our local WH Smith, there's a book section called 'Damaged Lives' for all those reminicenses of beatings and starvations with their hand lettered titles and cover shots of pencil-thin childrens' legs...sometimes you'd believe the whole canon of women-orientated fiction could sit in there quite happily, so deeply backward-looking and conservative does it seem.
'The Old Child' features an abandoned big, ugly lump of a fourteen year old girl, who is placed in a Children's Home. There, in an attempt not to be noticed, she does nothing, feels nothing. She just wants to stay there. Which, until she falls ill and her 'secret'; is discovered, she does. The prose tries to be allusive, but too often wanders towards the worst excesses of Saramago and the un-caffeinated reader might find eyes beginning to droop.
It's not a 'bad' novella, of course it's not. It's skillful and occasionally affecting, but also unremittingly dismal and not particularly rewarding.
I read ten pages of the Book of Words and decided that though it's only a short book, life is shorter still.
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on 10 April 2012
I usually don't read other reviews before writing my own but I did here, and so this review has turned partly into a defence of the novel! This is a book that I feel does not benefit from comparisons with other novelists as it is so distinctive. The writing (note - I read in translation) is expertly controlled and each story unfolds in an unexpectedly 'right' direction. Though both tales invite and benefit from further examination, I do feel at first reading that they can also be enjoyed at face value - as simply unsettling pictures of unexplained people. The writing isn't easy or its points obvious, but I'd argue that a masterpiece (yes, I am going to call this a masterpiece) deserves a little work on the reader's part. I'd definitely read more of Erpenbeck's work.
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on 18 January 2011
I bought this because it was recommended on a book show on TV. Apparently it should have been life changing. I think this novel must be for the highly intellectual as I just didn't get it! It was eery but so pedestrian and repetitive. I kept going as I thought all would become clear in the end but it didn't. It left me with more questions than answers but the questions I had weren't really interesting enough to waste anymore of my life on. If you like those strange German Arthouse films where you sit and watch one character sitting alone in a derelict house in the wilderness for two hours in black and white, then you might enjoy this book - otherwise I'd steer clear!
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on 2 December 2010
I ordered this for "The Old Child" and quite frankly I am not sure what I think of it.The review in the Guardian highly reccomended it. It is a highly serious piece of writing and very short (a novella) Perhaps I was expecting a Stefan Sweig, if so I didn't get it.
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