“The Girl who wasn’t there” by Ferdinand von Schirach – review

I’ll be blunt about this from the outset: I found “The Girl who wasn’t there” to be quite a strange book.  Not necessarily in a bad way, I hasten to add, but I got to the end feeling slightly unsure as to what exactly it was I’d just read – and on top of that, the hunch that I wasn’t meant to be sure.

It’s a book of two halves – literally.  Section one tells the backstory of the man who will later be implicated in a murder case (and don’t worry, that’s not a horrendous spoiler, it’s on the book jacket!) while section two deals with the police enquiry and subsequent trial.  We first meet the suspect, Sebastian von Eschburg, as a young child growing up in a remote country house that was once a place of some grandeur and prosperity but is now a dilapidated shadow of its former self.  Sebastian is a strange child, a fact of which he’s very much aware – he experiences emotions and memories as colours and unnerves his schoolteachers by conversing out loud with characters from his favourite books.  A shock event propels him from an unconventional childhood to a troubled adolescence, and by the time he reaches adulthood the events from his past combined with his already unusual mental disposition have well and truly taken their toll.  He launches what turns out to be a highly successful career as a photographer, his unique way of visualising the world around him giving rise to some complex and at times disquieting artistic creations.  The mental torment is never far away, however, lurking behind the lens, channelled to an extent by his work but always ready to strike.  By the end of the first half of the novel it would seem that Sebastian’s inner demons have struck indeed.

Part two switches abruptly to a new central character: Konrad Biegler, a curmudgeonly barrister who has been persuaded, very much against his will, to spend some time in a mountain retreat following a nervous breakdown.  Biegler is cantankerous, rude and regards most of the people around him as imbeciles, and yet he was the first character in the book for which I felt any kind of warmth.  The main reason for this is that he is incredibly funny – the archetypal “grumpy old man” if you will – and I found this brought a much-needed relief from the exploration of the tormented artist that had gone before.  The story itself remains serious; from this point on it follows the pattern of what I would call a more typical crime thriller.  We don’t see a whole lot of Sebastian in this part of the book; it’s more of a police procedural and courtroom drama, the focus being the investigation into the alleged murder.

To be honest, this sudden jump from the emotionally complex, almost dreamlike character study of the first half to the straightforward, plot-driven second half was what made the reading experience bizarre.  It felt as if I had read two different novels, neither of which was quite complete.  I found the backstory much more engaging and although the criminal case was by no means uninteresting it felt a bit rushed, as if there wasn’t enough time to really build the suspense.  The book’s conclusion does go some way to linking the two halves together again, but by that point I wasn’t quite sure that the device had worked.  Having said that, the book did throw up some interesting ideas, particularly about the indistinct nature of the line between art and reality.  If you have an afternoon to spare it’s worth a try; I liked von Schirach’s writing style and hats off to him for offering up something a bit different.  I wouldn’t review a book on my blog if I really disliked it, so although for me this one had its challenges I think it could be one that many different types of reader could enjoy.  If you’ve tried it I’d love to hear what you think.

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