NIGHT DUTY by Melitta Breznik


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A fragmentary, elliptical story of family unhappiness emerges from the tormented consciousness of a hardworking woman doctor—in this compact and very affecting first novel by an Austrian psychiatrist. It begins with the musings prompted by its unnamed narrator’s performance of an autopsy, and ends with an “apartment sale” of her deceased father’s few possessions. The narrative accordingly shifts between graphically clinical descriptions of emergency medical procedures and reluctant mental travels back to the world of her childhood and youth in rural Austria. Her German mother’s incompatibility with the narrator’s depressive, combative father (a soldier and later POW during WWII, though not a Nazi Party member) grew exacerbated by the disapproval of her husband’s Austrian relatives and later by his drinking. One of the narrator’s older brothers wasted away from complications following colon surgery; the other dispassionately separated himself from their troubled family. It could scarcely be bleaker, but Breznik’s mosaic portrayal of her perhaps too generic victims (all five principals are, appropriately, nameless) assumes real emotional credibility, thanks largely to convincing transitions that link the narrator’s “night duty” to her half-buried past. Routine checks on moribund patients are juxtaposed with visits to the nursing home where, long after her mother’s death, her father lies dying of the alcoholism that finally drove them apart. Soothing a frightened three-year-old brings vivid memories of nights when she slept with a knife under her pillow, fearing her father’s violence. Rummaging through his collection of hats recalls the cerebral hemorrhage that struck him years before she was born, which perhaps shaped his subsequent instability and embitterment. It’s a tribute to the power of Breznik’s imagination that one finishes this novel both moved by its shadowy characters’ pathetic fates and frustrated that we know them so incompletely—a

Pub Date: April 11th, 1999
ISBN: 1-883642-85-X
Page count: 131pp
Publisher: Steerforth
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1999