A beautifully crafted exercise in terror from one of Germany’s most celebrated contemporary authors.
The unnamed narrator of this novella is a screenwriter trying to complete a sequel to his hit, Besties. In order to help him work, he and his wife retreat to a rental house in the mountains, taking their 4-year-old daughter with them. This is, of course, hardly a distraction-free environment. The notebook that is supposed to be devoted to his script is filled with more personal matter—good-natured grumbling about raising a small child, descriptions of the tensions within his marriage, and complaints about the difficulties he’s having figuring out what happens next for his characters. The parenting vignettes are funny: “Meanwhile Esther was telling us about a friend from preschool who is named either Lisi or Ilse or Else and either took a toy away from her or gave her one...; little kids are not good storytellers.” The conflicts between the narrator and his wife, Susanna, are less innocent, and they threaten to darken what should be an innocuous chick flick. Then the bad dreams begin, and it’s not long before the line between these night terrors and everyday reality begins to blur. This novel is, in many ways, a classic haunted-house tale. There are warnings about the house from the people in the village below. There’s a creeping sense of horror. There are frightening phenomena that the narrator cannot explain. And there are specters. Kehlmann (F, 2014, etc.) uses all these familiar tropes beautifully. But he also creates a sense of existential dread that transcends the typical ghost story. The relationship between the narrator and his daughter adds a level of anxiety; he has to protect her not just from the house, but also from knowledge of what’s happening. And Kehlmann deserves special notice for recognizing just how uncanny a baby monitor can be.
A book to keep you up at night.