Some books slip through the back door into their readers’ minds. Some books don’t need to make showy, grand gestures, or to demonstrate their authors’ skill on every page. Kristine Bilkau (b. 1974) writes these kinds of novels. Her debut novel, Die Glücklichen, proved to be an exact seismic record of a social class that on first inspection leads a life of privilege in the metropolis, while at the same time being controlled by the underlying fear of losing this secure framework overnight.
In her second novel Eine Liebe, in Gedanken, Bilkau takes two steps back in time to the supposedly rejuvenating 1960s. A young woman, the first-person narrator, is clearing the house owned by her late mother, Antonia. Thanks to old photographs and letters, she begins to unravel the confusing strands of her late mother’s life. At first glance, this is not an especially original idea. However, what Kristine Bilkau makes of it is the touching portrait of an ambitious woman who can only experience her one great love affair “in her thoughts”.
In her early twenties, Antonia – living in Hamburg – meets Edgar who is slightly older than her. They both benefit from the advantages of the Economic Miracle: they treat themselves to cost-conscious stays in elegant hotels and drive through town in their first second-hand car. However, at the same time and without being rebels, both subvert the rules at least of an outwardly moral world in which women who live in rental apartments are no longer allowed to entertain men after 10 pm.
Bilkau characterizes in a few strokes the pre-1968 era, which was by no means restrictive, and focuses her main attention on Antonia, a self-confident woman. She has no doubt about her shared future with Edgar – even when he wants to break away from his professional malaise and accepts the offer to set up an office of his company in remote Hong Kong. Antonia immediately indicates that she is not put off by this break, and that she would like to take this step with him. Edgar travels on ahead, however, he doesn’t keep his promise to come back for his girlfriend. The long-distance relationship between Hamburg and Hong Kong gradually peters out – and Antonia will not recover from the shock. Two marriages fail. Until the end of her life, her thoughts remain with Edgar. At some point, he returns to Hamburg and has no idea that Antonia habitually drives past his house every evening, though without drawing attention to herself.
Eine Liebe, in Gedanken is a glorious, moving book that avoids abrasive tones. Kristine Bilkau’s style is decidedly simple, sleek and with hardly any false notes; she gently accompanies the characters, allowing the quiet melancholy of ‘what might have been’ to shine through on every page and showing how life comes apart at the seams, how confidence turns into restlessness and uncertainty. On the one hand, Eine Liebe, in Gedanken is the portrait of a wistful woman who wanted to take her fate into her own hands, and not to be placated with bourgeois solutions. On the other hand, the novel reflects how this life has an impact on the narrator, Antonia’s daughter, and how – without it being made explicit in Eine Liebe, in Gedanken – she starts to think about her personal influences and perhaps what she has missed out on herself.
By Rainer Moritz
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright
Kristine Bilkau: Eine Liebe, in Gedanken. Novel. Luchterhand, Munich 2018. 256 pages.