Saturday, June 18, 2016

Review of Ferdinand von Schirach's The Girl Who Wasn't There

The Girl Who Wasn't There, by Ferdinand von Schirach (Abacus, June 7, 2016)

The thing about Ferdinand von Schirach is that nobody writes the way he does. His style is cool, distant and spare, but it creeps up on you, and suddenly it's immediate and searing.

I really didn't know where I was with this book when I started it. For nearly half the pages, it's the story of Sebastian von Eschbach, from boyhood to about age 50. He grows up on an estate, with his distant parents. He is deeply affected by a hunting experience with his father. He seems to have senses not shared by other people, including a perception of color so overwhelming he finds it almost unbearable. He becomes a celebrated photographic artist, exclusively sepia and black-and-white, then branching out into inventive multi-dimensional and video art exhibitions.

Though I didn't know where that first half of the book was going, I was still engrossed. Sebastian is an emotionally distant enigma, but one I wanted to solve.

German television dramatization of a story from
von Schirach's Crime
Then the book suddenly changes pace and direction when Sebastian is accused of murdering a young woman. Now the novel becomes the story of his defense attorney, Biegler, and Sebastian's trial. As with von Schirach's last novel, The Collini Case (see review here), the defense attorney must do his own investigation, because his client is largely uncooperative and seems indifferent to his fate.

Biegler's investigation and the trial make for a gripping exploration of the difference between perception and reality, the fallacies of what we believe and why. It makes some hard-hitting points about this in the context of modern-day geopolitics as well. It won't be a book for everyone, but if you think it might be for you, be prepared for the compulsion to read it all in one sitting.

Image sources:, Hö,

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