Book Quote:

“None of the patients ever ventured to reply to Helene’s question by asking how she was herself. Her uniform protected her. The white apron was a stronger signal than any of the traffic lights going up at more and more road junctions in the city these days, shining brightly to show who could go and who must stop. If you wore white you could keep your mouth shut; if you wore white you weren’t asked how you were. Courtesy was all on the outside for Helene and hardly tamed her despair, but it controlled it; pity for the suffering of others was her inner prop and stay.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (OCT 22, 2010)

In the original German version, so I’ve been told, the title of this book is Die Mittagsfrau, or “The Noonday Witch.” According to legend, the witch appears in the heat of day to spirit away children from their distracted parents. Those who are able to engage the witch in a short conversation find that her witch-like powers evaporate.

In Julia Franck’s brilliant English version (translated by the very talented Anthea Bell), Helene gradually retreats into silence and passivity, losing her ability to communicate effectively. We meet her in the book’s prologue as the mother of an eight-year-old boy, leading her son towards a packed train in the direction of Berlin. Before the train arrives she tells him a white lie, abandoning him at a bench, never to return. In the succeeding 400 pages, the reader gains a glimpse as to what drove Helene to this most unnatural act.

Helene is born into a family that defines the word “dysfunction.” Her charismatic, morphine-addicted older sister Martha engages her in an incestuous relationship. Her mentally unbalanced “foreign” (i.e., Jewish mother) is unable to connect with her two daughters, totally distancing from them when their father goes off to fight the Great War and becomes grievously injured. When the two sisters gain the chance to flee to Berlin, they grab it and train as nurses, exposing them to the pain of their patients and also giving them ready access to drugs.

Martha fits right into the debauchery and frantic partying of a decaying Berlin with her enlightened free-thinking friend and physician-lover, Leontine, but Helene is far more circumspect and sensitive. Her one enduring love is a philosophy student named Carl who also feels deeply and tells her, “The God principle is built on pain. Only if pain were obliterated from the world could we speak of the death of God.” When he is gone from the scene, she is unable to protect herself from victimization, occurring time and time again, with sexual predators and the cruel man she eventually marries.

As readers, we watch helplessly as Helene becomes increasingly detached, her heart becoming cold and numb. So it is no surprise when she concludes of her son, “…she had nothing more for him, her words were all used up long ago, she had neither bread nor an hour’s time for him, there was nothing of her left for the child.”

As the book progresses, the reader is forced to adapt an omnipotent stance; we know the consequence of some of the characters’ decisions and the genocide that will soon follow, but we are powerless to guide the characters through. Julia Franck instructs through omission as much as she does the details. When Helene calls Berlin to speak to Martha and gets no answer, we as readers are reasonably sure what has occurred. But it is never confirmed. As a result, as Helene goes numb, we begin to understand. And we begin to gain some compassion for an act that virtually all mothers would consider unforgiveable.

There is a menacing quality that pervades the book, becoming more and more pronounced as Hitler rises in power. There is no black-and-white morality or easy outcomes; there are simply all kinds of loss – loss of one’s sanity, loss of innocence, loss of love, loss of the natural order of things, loss of hope. The more the characters lose, the more they must abandon. In many ways, we know they are already as good as gone.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 15 readers
PUBLISHER: Grove Press (October 5, 2010)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Julia Franck
EXTRAS: Excerpt

Partial Bibliography (translated works only):

October 22, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Germany, Translated, World Lit

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.