WINNER OF THE ACORN FOUNDATION FICTION PRIZE AT THE OCKHAM NEW ZEALAND BOOK AWARDS
“A remarkable book with a stunningly original twist.” The Times (London)
This international bestselling historical novel follows two children and a mysterious narrator as they navigate the falsehoods and wreckage of WW II Germany
Germany, 1939. As Germany’s hope for a glorious future begins to collapse, two children, Sieglinde and Erich, find temporary refuge in an abandoned theater amid the rubble of Berlin. Outside, white bedsheets hang from windows; all over the city, people are talking of surrender. The days Sieglinde and Erich spend together will shape the rest of their lives.
Watching over them is the wish child, the enigmatic narrator of their story. He sees what they see, he feels what they feel, yet his is a voice that comes from deep inside the ruins of a nation’s dream.
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|Product dimensions:||5.76(w) x 8.74(h) x 1.01(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Let me say that I was not in the world long enough to understand it well, so can give you only impressions, like the shapes left in rock by long-decayed leaves, or the pencil rubbings of doves and skulls that are but flimsy memories of stone. Just these little smudges, these traces of light and shadow, these breaths in and out. They feel like mine.
Sieglinde is shuffling and turning the pieces of paper, releasing the scent of old typewriter ribbons and pencil sharpenings, rubber stamps and vinyl chairs, ink pads, carbon paper. There are shelves of destroyed documents, rooms of them, ripped apart in the last frantic days of the GDR and crammed into sacks. Some are simple to reconstruct, torn only in two or four, and you can read whole sentences, even paragraphs – but others are in pieces no bigger than postage stamps and bear mere fragments of words. There is no telling what will emerge from the sacks; no way of predicting whose life she will pull out in tatters. One day it's a university student who told a joke about Honecker; the next it's a housewife whose parcels sent from friends in the West betrayed clear capitalist leanings: aluminium foil, instant pudding. There's a train driver who refused to let a camera be pointed from his apartment towards his neighbour's, and so was monitored for years himself. A mother who let her son grow his hair long and wear jeans to school. A teenager who covered her bedroom walls with pictures of Michael Jackson. The intercepted letters are the easiest to put back together, the phrases well-worn, expected: I miss you. I love you. I wish I could see you. Sieglinde spends a week reconstructing a drawing of someone's apartment – it's a detailed floor plan, viewed as if from above, as if the roof has been cut away to let you see into every room at once. It shows all the furniture down to the last footstool, and all the electrical fittings, and the measurements of every wall. There is even a newspaper on a coffee table and a cat asleep on an armchair; everything is there but the people. She finds photographs in the sacks, too: Polaroids of rumpled sheets, books in a bookcase, dishes left to soak in a kitchen sink – a record of the ordinary, so that after a search it could all be put back in the right place and nobody would notice a thing. Sometimes she pauses over these small domestic scenes, tracing with a finger the crinkles in lace curtains tied into bunches, the eddy of an unmade bed.
She has developed her own system, as all the puzzlers have. She lifts the scraps from the bags as gently as possible to preserve the original strata, sorting them according to size, paper colour, texture, weight, as well as typeface or handwriting, before fitting ragged edge to ragged edge to restore the destroyed file. It can take days to complete a single page, and always there are pieces she cannot home, holes she cannot fill. Sixteen thousand sacks, six hundred million scraps of paper – it will take centuries to finish – but she trains herself to focus only on the snippets in front of her, to find the patterns, the matches. She knows she is running out of time; soon she will retire, and she will return to her old life in Berlin, give notice to the student who is subletting her apartment. She pushes herself to work as quickly as possible, restoring the stories of ordinary people, watching the puzzles decipher themselves beneath her hands. And always, in the back of her mind, the puzzle that has never left her: Erich Kröning. She searches for him in every file, her heart turning over when she thinks she sees his name – though it is never the right Erich, never her Erich; of course not. I'm not telling that sort of story; I can't put everything back together.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
STRENGTH THROUGH JOY
I don't know whether the little bones,
Rinsed by the sea, will tangle together,
Or whether, wrapped in clouds,
They will reach for music and
I know that without fragrance,
Like fingers stiff in the joints,
Offer no magic
For which the living call in sleep.
The Krönings rose earlier than usual, though everything was already in order: the pathways were swept, flowers cut and arranged, windows polished until the glass all but disappeared. In the fields the wheat grew straight and golden and in the orchard the bees were waking in their hives. The living-room curtains shifted a little of their own accord – was a window loose? Was there a draught? Emilie and her husband Christoph sat in each chair in turn and pretended to be guests, looking at their home through outside eyes. The sun was not yet up, the rooster only just beginning to crow, but they suspected it would be a stifling day. It was sensible to be prepared for the visit, to allow themselves time to check that nothing was out of place. Perhaps they had not noticed that the fringe of a carpet was tangled, or that the blessing hung askew; perhaps a clock needed winding or a cushion punching back into shape – but no, all was correct: flowers in the vases, wheat in the fields, bees in the hives and Mein Kampf on the shelf.
When they were satisfied with the house, the Krönings began to prepare themselves. Emilie sat at her mirror and parted and braided her pale blond hair, pinning it into place so it would not move. She could feel her scalp and the fine skin at her temples pulling, but the sensation was quite bearable. She was proud of her hair; it hung to the small of her back when she brushed it out, and the strands of her braids were as thick as thumbs.
'I'll give you my skin if you give me your hair,' her sister Uschi used to say when they shared a bedroom.
'I'll give you my eyes if you give me your ankles,' Emilie would reply.
She pinched a little blood into her cheeks now and smoothed her church dress over her slim hips. You really could not tell she was a mother. 'Thank you for coming,' she said to her reflection. 'Thank you for considering our case.' You-you, you, the turtle dove called from the forest. You-you, you. The sound drifted to Emilie's window and seemed to float there in the indistinct early morning. The day had not yet decided what it would become.
She watched Christoph splash his razor in the water. He paused to wipe steam from the mirror – he kept disappearing – and then he held taut the skin of his throat. He was a tall, sinewy man; he had to crouch to see himself. He frowned away a lock of sandy hair that fell forward into his eyes, giving Emilie a small smile when he noticed her looking at him. The sound of the blade against his flesh called to Emilie's mind the first rasp of fire burning off a spent crop. In a way she regretted those blazes – a certain melancholy rose in her as she watched the remains of a harvest begin to crumple and vanish – but unless you cleared away waste matter there could be no new growth, and any small sentiment always passed once the flames had burst and spread. Christoph smoothed his hair down with water, flattening the curls at his brow. The little scar above his eye was pale in the early light, almost invisible, though as summer wore on and his skin turned browner it would show itself more. His father had been teaching him how to use the scythe and Christoph had stepped too close. His mother still fussed over it: if it had been half a centimetre lower . . . Sometimes Emilie touched it with her long, cool fingers and said the same thing.
At breakfast the Krönings sliced open their rolls and spread them with butter and jam while their wedding clock tutted at them from the far wall. Today the little woman had swung out from the clock's insides to tell them that rain was on the way, but it didn't feel like it. The oilcloth table-cover caught the pale light from the window to the north and lay cool beneath their wrists. They took measured bites, neither hurrying nor dawdling. The guest was not getting into Leipzig until after ten. There was plenty of time.
'Is this the last of Uschi's jam?' said Christoph.
'Of the cherry, yes,' said Emilie. 'There's one more apricot.'
'The apricot is very good too,' said Christoph. 'Though I prefer the cherry.'
Table of ContentsPuzzles
Strength Through Joy
The Wax Woman
The Ger man Face
You Too Belong to the Führer
A Puppet Show
Kinder toten lieder
The Wish Child
The Secret That Is Not a Secret
Note on Sources