I purchased German author Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation whilst I was in Berlin last year, and was mesmerised by its prose and the haunting, oppressive feel which she brought into the tale. I had not read any of her other books, but when randomly searching for Portobello Books, I spotted a lovely omnibus edition of two of her novellas – The Old Child and The Book of Words – which I could not resist.
The Old Child, the first novella in the collection, tells the story of a lonely fourteen-year-old girl, who has lost her memory for a reason which we as readers do not discover. Not knowing what to do with her, the authorities put her into a Home for Children. She remembers nothing of her past life, and does not fit in with anyone she meets. The things which happen to her whilst at the Home and during her lessons at school are so very sad. Erpenbeck builds up such sympathy for her. The saddest element of all for me is the fact that the young girl – or ‘the old child’, as she is seen by others – is nameless for the entirety. She has no name, no memories, no knowledge of her past; she has nothing, in fact. Erpenbeck’s writing is pitch perfect, and in The Old Child she has created an original and rather haunting story, which I am not going to be able to forget.
I was going to wait for a while before I began the second novella in the book, but my curiosity got the better of me, and I started it almost immediately. The Book of Words is creepy, unsettling and rather horrible at times, and despite the awful feeling of foreboding and claustrophobia which overcame me as soon as it began to gather momentum, I still struggled to put it down.
I cannot reveal too many details of The Book of Words for fear of giving the entire plot away. Suffice to say it has some similarities to The Old Child, but it is also marvellously original. The narrative voice used works perfectly. Erpenbeck is marvellous at challenging the perceptions and long-held ideals of her readers, and at crafting tales which veer off in unexpected directions. I would – and will, to everyone I meet – highly recommend any of the three novellas mentioned here (Visitation, The Old Child and The Book of Words). Erpenbeck is a startling author who very much deserves to have a wider readership.