I hadn’t come across books by Daniel Kehlmann until I picked up You Should Have Left; I was subsequently told that I shouldn’t have read this one first. Not having anything to compare Kehlmann’s writing with, I didn’t quite know what to expect; my naïve assumption at the outset was that it was a short and light book that would be easy to carry around – not one of the heavy tomes that I usually find myself burdened with. So it became something to relieve the boredom of my daily commute. But Kehlmann’s fine and enthralling writing and his ability to maintain the suspense meant that I finished it in less than a week. What I found was a realistic horror novel, that added something of David Lynch to my trip to work.
At the outset, the plot appears quite simple and clear: an unnamed narrator sets off on holiday with his young family: wife Susanna and four-year old daughter Esther. A modern house in a remote village in the German mountains – booked via Airbnb – is their chosen destination: the distance from their everyday life will help the young author find inspiration for his new book and the couple save their marriage. But they find soon enough that the apparently ordinary dynamics of their family life are threatened by incomprehensible events. The main character starts hearing voices; he has bad dreams and feels the presence of other people in the house. And on a short shopping trip for groceries to the nearest village, the locals warn him the house is haunted by an untold past.
Susanna, too, expresses her discomfort about the house, and they immediately decide to leave. But as the narrator is looking for the house owner’s telephone number on his wife’s mobile phone, he discovers some rather explicit messages from a man called David, clearly Susanna’s not-so-new lover. They fight, Susanna leaves and the narrator is left alone with his daughter and the ghosts that seem to inhabit the house. Father and daughter are trapped in a vicious circle of obscure and inexplicable events that create an atmosphere of anxiety, fear and helplessness. But who are these ghosts? They assume different forms throughout the book, sometimes a whisper in the night that tells him he “should have left”, or a framed picture on the wall that seems to have appeared out of nowhere or the figure of a man on the screen of the baby monitor, just in front of his daughter.
A remarkable device used by Kehlmann to increase the suspense and the sense of anxiety is the narrator’s act of writing: he records everything he is feeling, seeing and experiencing in a small notebook. And again, the same effect is also achieved through unfinished sentences with no punctuation, which create suspense and anxiety in both characters and readers. The act of writing becomes vital to the author: his notebook is not just a report and proof that their fear is real, it becomes a metaphor for their survival: father and daughter are alive as long as he is able to write down what is happening.
Daniel Kehlmann’s book is a short, poignant horror novel and, even if it wasn’t the one I should have read first, I am now certain I’ll read his other books: I want to discover more of his direct, realistic and sometimes merciless style.
Reviewed by Patrizia Elena Crivelli
You Should Have Left
Written by Daniel Kehlmann
Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin
Published by Riverrun
Patrizia Elena Crivelli was born in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland and has always been fascinated by languages. She studied English and Spanish Literature, History of Art and Curating. Apart from literature, she is very interested in music and the history of photography. After having worked in a commercial art gallery dedicated to photography, she currently works as an Assistant in Cultural Affairs at the Embassy of Switzerland in London.