This novel by German author Andrea Maria Schenkel and translated by Anthea Bell begins with a foreword in which an unnamed narrator writes of spending the summer after the war with relatives in the country:
During those weeks, that village seemed to me an island of peace. One of the last places to have survived intact after the great storm that we had just weathered.
Years later, when life had gone back to normal and that summer was only a happy memory, I read about the same village in the paper.
My village had become the home of “the murder farm,” and I couldn’t get the story out of my mind.
With mixed feelings, I went back.
The book that follows is made up of the recollections of people the unnamed narrator spoke to about the Danner farm, now the notorious murder farm. Neighbors remember the family that lived there and what they saw in the days leading up to the tragic event that gave the farm its new name. Other chapters show the events as they happened, as experienced by the people who were there. Only gradually do we, the readers, learn what happened.
The novel is based on a real-life unsolved crime in rural Bavaria in the 1920s. Schenkel keeps the farm in Bavaria, but in the fictional village of Tannöd (the German title of the novel). And instead of setting it in the 1920s, she places it in the 1950s, which allows her to incorporate the characters’ musings on the recent war and the horrors they experienced then into the story.
It’s a short novel, taut and suspenseful and possible to read in just one or two sittings. Its structure is ingenious, building slowly toward revealing exactly what the crime was and how it happened. The gruesome details about the murders are doled out carefully, often beginning with a character disappearing behind a door, not to be seen again for many chapters. The doom feels certain, but is it? What did happen? Interspersed among the chapters are selections from a prayer book, adding weight with its pleas for God to “Be merciful unto them! Spare them, O Lord!” We cry along with the prayers as we watch a child walk down a hallway or a young maid going to bed. Could there be hope for them?
The family at the center of the novel was not well liked. The family was the subject of gossip, and it seems that there was good reason. Old Danner was said to have been cruel to the Polish girl who was assigned to their farm as a foreign worker and committed suicide in their barn. There were rumors of incest, and the paternity of daughter Barbara’s two children was murky. The prayers start to feel different. Frau Danner held a worn old prayer book in her hands and says her faith is the only thing that kept her going. Are these her prayers?
This is a chilling book, dark, disturbing, and delicious. It’s the first of Schenkel’s novels and has just been published in the United States. Four of her five novels have been translated into English and published (or about to be published) in the UK. I hope more of them make their way here quickly.
Review copy received through Netgalley