One day eleven-year-old Elly goes missing while cycling to her judo class at the nearby sports centre. No explanation for her disappearance is ever uncovered, and for Elly’s family the world detaches from its axis. Her parents, Judith and Hamid, and her older sister, Ines, are immersed in a limbo of loss and grief, but also, a vague but persistent feeling of hope. Each of them has a voice here, exposing their personal experience as the tragedy of losing a child unfolds. After the initial devastating shock Ines notes:
‘My parents and I search for signs of a plan. We want Elly to have simply run away. We want her to be alive somewhere.’
Soon dark, painful thoughts engulf each of them: suicide, kidnap, rape, murder, endless suspicion:
‘The caretaker at the sports hall says he didn’t see my sister. The other girls stroll past him. He runs an eye over them. These giggling, long-haired child-women.’ [Ines]
Passages like testimony reveal the family’s shared suffering and their wells of interior torment. Each person constructs a separate strategy for survival. Like Schrödinger’s cat, Elly is both dead and alive – the occasion of grief and hope. Judith, for example, mourns her daughter but she feels Elly’s presence as if her child is still alive.
This poignant tale has the gripping pace of a thriller, but the investigation and the accusations and assumptions of the wider world are peripheral to the family’s struggle with its sorrow, which is the raw, emotional heart of the novel: agony and uncertainty, guilt and shame, self-blame and recriminations.
Then the novel shifts: after four years of absence, an abused and traumatised girl is found on a beach in Denmark and the authorities reach out to the family. The child seems to be the right age to be Elly, but is she?
‘I need Elly. I can’t go back into the darkness’ says Judith.
The novel now focuses on the victim’s tragic and violent experiences, although her traumatic story is something she can’t share with the family. For the first half of this painful and oppressive novel the absence of Elly is the catalyst for everyone else’s emotional anguish; her return represents a new maelstrom of emotion. When we finally hear from Elly it’s utterly devastating.
This is a rare and evocative study of heartbreak and grief in myriad forms, and Wetzel’s skill as a short-story writer is clearly evident in this brief, taut, honed and urgent novel. A haunting and unforgettable read.
Reviewed by Paul Burke
Written by Maike Wetzel
Translated by Lyn Marven
Published by Scribe (2020)
Paul Burke writes The Verdict column for nbmagazine.co.uk and interviews, articles and features for crimetime.co.uk. He has worked in the public, private sector and voluntary sector. Paul is a book collector, lover of literature in translation and a crime fiction aficionado.