You Would Have Missed Me by Birgit Vanderbeke

41945033._sy475_Print – fiction. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. Peirene Press, 2019. Originally published 2016. 154 pgs. Purchased.

The early 1960s, a young girl arrives in West Germany from East Germany with her parents. The family is settled into a camp for displaced people where the little girl befriends a family unit consisting of a woman and two men, who instruct the little girl to refer to them as her aunt and uncles.

Her parents attempt to sever this friendship when they moved out of the camp prior to the little girl’s seventh birthday. Her mother considers the woman to be indecent, to be the wrong kind of role model for her daughter. But the mother’s attention towards her daughter’s associations (and her clamoring for a cat) wanes as her husband returns to his abusive behavior, resentful of his wife for getting pregnant and forcing them leave the life he loved in East Berlin.

The little girl does not receive a cat for her birthday. Instead, she receives a globe from her parents and a copy of The Time Machineby H.G. Wells from the non-traditional family she met in the displaced persons camp. At first glance, the two presents constitute a major disappointment but, as time progresses, the little girl sees how each open represents all the opportunities, including the freedom to travel, now open to her through life in West Germany.

The background events of this little girl’s life were the most intriguing aspects of Vanderbeke’s novel for me. The fixation of the little girl’s parents on what might have been run counter to what I was taught about life in East Germany. (Visiting two history museums in Berlin that addressed consumerism in the DDR last year provided quite the education.)

The mother’s avid adoption of the consumeristic culture is fueled not entirely by her exposure to West Germany, western Europe, and America. Instead, her desire for teak furniture and the latest vehicle is driven by her assumption that she would have married and, therefore, possessed the material possessions of her previous boyfriend, a descendent of wealthy landowners connected with the Nazi Party, if he not died during the war.

The father’s rejection of West German culture and, thus, his wife is not a reflection of deeply held allegiance to the Communist Party. Rather, he lost East Germany at the same he lost his bachelorhood, and he has entwined the two together as the best part of his life. He hates West Germany because he hates marriage and fatherhood, seeing this new location as just another rope around his neck.

At the beginning of the novella, the publisher of Peirene Press wrote that they chose to publish this novella – the first time they’ve repeated an author – because of the positioning of the little girl as the central character.

“Today, as in the past, people flee from one country to another in the hope of finding a better future. But how do children experience such displacement? How do they cope with traumas of a refugee camp?”

The little girl’s story certainly explores these questions, and her decision to cope with the trauma of displacement by reading and imagining is certainly an action that fellow bookworms and/or geography nerds will identify with.

Unfortunately, I found I wasn’t engaged with the little girl as a character enough to make this novella work for me. I certainly felt for her plight, especially when she decides that her parents’ mourning of the past means they blame her for bringing them to a lower socioeconomic ladder in the West. But I often felt like I was watching her through cracks or holes in a wall, never quite able to fully see her.

This is my tenth book for #20BooksofSummer. I received this book as part of my yearly subscription to Peirene Press in May 2019, roughly six weeks before it was officially published in June 2019. 

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