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Daniel Kehlmann: Du hättest gehen sollen (You Should Have Left)

This is not a novel, as it is only ninety-six pages long, but it is near enough so here it is. It tells the story of a family – father, unnamed narrator, mother Susanna, a famous and beautiful actress, and four-year old daughter, Esther. The family has rented a holiday house in a valley next to glaciers. The view is beautiful. Indeed, says the narrator, it looks much better in real life than in the picture on the Internet. (They have, of course, rented it through AirBnB).

The narrator is a scriptwriter and has already had a successful comedy made called Very Best Friend. He is now writing the script for a follow-up to this comedy, with the same characters. The story which we follow, concerns two young women, Jana and Ella, who share a flat. Jana was dating Martin. Martin is good-looking, intelligent and sensitive. However, he is a tax inspector and who wants to dates a tax inspector? So Jana broke it off. But the answer to her question is Ella. Ella is now dating Martin. Moreover, she is planning on having Marin move in with her, which will means Jana has to go. The narrator is struggling with this script for various reasons. He is interrupted by Susanna and Esther. The producer is pushing him to finish it, to capitalise on the success of the first one, and has even suggested that they might bring in someone else to help him write the script. He is also struggling with determining the back story of Jana and Ella, remembering that, when he gave a class on scriptwriting, he told the students that an author must always know the back story of his characters. He does not know the back story of Jana and Ella.

The narrator fell in love with Susanna when he first saw her on the set. He still loves her very much but the marriage is not going well. The couple frequently squabble over trivial things. He feels that she looks down on him, as she has a university degree and he does not. She also seems to look down on his work which she considers trivial. He also seems to spend a lot of time texting on her mobile phone. They decide to go for a walk but it starts raining and is unpleasant. Suddenly, both agree that they no longer want to stay there and agree to leave at once. They go back to the house and she starts packing. He plans to contact the owner and, seeing her phone, goes to look for the owner’s number as she had made the booking. He then sees the results of her texting.

While he enjoys the view, he considers the house too big for them. Indeed, he twice gets lost. Then things get stranger. He has strange dreams. He sees an odd picture on the wall which he had never seen before. He learns from the very odd local shopkeeper that strange things happen at the house. Most holiday-makers left before their time was up. It is not clear why. One disappeared and was never found. Our narrator wonders why this remote house has its own well-made road. The shopkeeper tells him that it has always been there and that, originally, there was a tower up there, a tower built by the Devil. At this point, Susanna has left, taking the car, and he is alone with Esther. They exit the sitting room and find that they are still in the sitting room. They try backing out of the room and find another room that he does not recall seeing before. And then things get worse.

This book got decidedly mixed reviews in Germany. Some critics liked it, others did not. One compared the story to Stephen King, though I felt it was more reminiscent of Mark Danielewski‘s House of Leaves. While certainly not Kehlmann’s best work, I did think it was not at all bad, linking the failure of a marriage to strange goings-on in a rural area. Kehlmann very gradually builds up the suspense, slowly adding the strange things, some of which, in themselves, are not necessarily worrisome – strange dreams, seeing unusual objects in the dark and getting lost in an unfamiliar house – while others are more worrying. However, I think he creates at an excellent atmosphere of dark foreboding, enhanced by the presence of a four-year old child.

Publishing history

First published 2016 by Reinbek Rowohlt
First English translation by Pantheon in 2017