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Julia Franck: Die Mittagsfrau (UK: The Blind Side of the Heart; US: Blindness of the Heart)
Franck’s novel starts with a brief episode in the life of Peter, a seven-year old German boy at the very end of World War II. Peter lives with is mother Alice – we will later learn that her real name is Helene – waiting for his father to return home from World War II. They are living in Stettin, where his mother works as a nurse in a hospital. She is eager to leave and flee to Berlin but the trains are always full, with Germans escaping the advancing Soviet forces. The city has been occupied by the Russians and Russian soldiers are billeted nearby. One day, Peter finds three Russian soldiers raping his mother but he has no idea what is happening and waits outside. His mother then decides it really is time for them to leave and they go to the station where, with difficulty and after a long wait, they finally manage to board a train. At one point they get off and Alice tells Peter to wait on a seat. He waits and waits but his mother never returns.
The rest of the book tells Helene’s story, from her birth, explaining why it is that she abandoned her son, whom she apparently loves. She is the daughter of Selma and Ernst Würsich. He is a printer. In the small village in Saxony in which they live, it is clear that Selma does not fit in. She barely talks to anyone and she is ignored. Only later do her daughters work out why this is the case – because (to her daughters’ surprise) she is Jewish. Selma and Ernst have a daughter – Martha. Then four boys are born in succession but all are stillborn or die soon after birth. Selma is naturally devastated so when Helene is born, she is both disappointed – that she is not a boy – and resentful towards her daughter. This is, of course, the start of Helene’s own difficulties as a mother.
But World War 1 arrives and Ernst goes off to the army. His war is not a good one. He loses a leg to a grenade (an accident from one of his own unit) and comes back home, only to die soon afterwards. Selma goes from bad to worse, increasingly unable to deal with life and not helped by her anti-Semitic and unfriendly neighbours. Martha and Helene help out in the household but Helene has an unusual ambition for a girl of that period – she wants to be a doctor. Martha has boyfriends – Arthur and then Leontine and it is Leontine she will meet up with again when the two young women go off to Berlin to stay with an aunt. Helene, too, has her relationships but she finally marries an engineer, Wilhelm. But Wilhelm is a Nazi.
Franck gives us a rich portrait of the period, both of Nazism and communism, as well of life in Berlin between the wars, before moving on to the very real problems faced by Germans during the war, particularly those of Jewish descent. But is the story of Martha and, in particular, Helene, coming from the background she does and facing up to the realities, first of a fiancé who dies and then a husband who is a Nazi. Franck shows us the complex nature of Helene and why she behaves as she does with Peter (and what happens afterwards) and she makes us understand the understandable, a mother abandoning her child.
First published 2007 by Fischer
First published in English in 2009 by Harvill Secker
Translated by Anthea Bell