A German social worker is beguiled by a young mentally-handicapped woman in this mesmerizing romance.
When conscientious objector Martin Eckart signs up for a year’s stint as a supervisor at a vocational workshop for the mentally impaired, he finds himself on another kind of battlefield. That’s because of Ulrike, a 20-year-old client who, thanks to a mishap that cut off oxygen to her brain at birth, has the body of an attractive grown woman but the mind of a rowdy preschooler. Unable to sit still for long and militantly opposed to bedtimes, Ulrike throws frequent tantrums that escalate from childish insults, shoving and hair-pulling to punching, biting and serious physical damage. Her rampages dissolve just as quickly into desolate remorse and giddy charm, leaving bystanders both shell-shocked and enchanted. Eckart’s patience and firmness overcome her hostility, but he finds it harder to cope when he becomes the object of her obsessive affection. Innocent but instinctively manipulative–â€œAs he made his rounds of the room, she had turned with him, as if she were holding the reins of a little horse”–Ulrike deploys her violent outbursts, collapsing fragility and off-handed sensuality to draw Eckart into a dangerous intimacy. Maneuvered, only half-unwillingly, into bathing her and hovering at her bedside–the novel’s eroticism stops short of salaciousness–Eckart understands the impossibility of their relationship, but feels a deeper urge to connect that goes beyond prurience. Volker’s engrossing portrait of his appalling, magnetic heroine is a tour-de-force of observation and empathy. His spare, subtle prose–shining through Stanley’s sometimes stilted translation–lends depth to her seemingly stunted personality and quicksilver moods, and pathos to her struggle to control a world she can’t comprehend and satisfy yearnings she can’t articulate. Through her story, the author lays bare a soul trapped in eternal immaturity.
A haunting love story and a triumph of literary imagination.