Harrowing but memorable

This is my review of The Blind Side of the Heart by Julia Franck.

I thought it would be interesting to read a novel about the impact of the two World Wars on the lives of German women. I assume that the "blind side of the heart" refers to people's inability to express normal love and emotion when they have been traumatised by the effects of war, both in grinding their lives down to a question of mere survival, and in taking away or maiming those they love. In this case, the main character Helene is reduced to a kind of automaton, caring for the sick in her role as a nurse, but unable to relate properly to her son. A complication is that the main factors destroying Helene have little to do with war as such – the loss of a lover and the callous and brutal behaviour of her husband, not to mention her own mother's irrational cruelty.

The focus on the minute details of daily life and on passing thoughts is often well-observed e.g. the description of Helene as a young girl studying every mole and blemish on her sister's back. However, I was disappointed by the lack of focus on the "bigger picture" to show how Germany evolved from a period of humiliation and punitive reparations after World War 1, through hyperinflation and political instability to World War 2 under Hitler.

I was repelled by the graphic descriptions of bodily functions, maladies and wounds. Helene's and at the end her son Peter's observation of the world with such a stark lack of emotion – for the "good characters" to be so hard – is shocking. I am unsure too what extent this excessive objectivity is deliberate but it reduced my capacity to empathise with the characters. I also found some of them quite unconvincing such as Helene's eccentric, often cruel mother, and her oddly passive father, and the strange relationship between these two. Helene's husband Wilhelm was painted too crudely in negative terms.

The book may have suffered seriously in translation. I had to reread several sentences which persisted in not making sense or appearing to be "non sequiturs". Generally, there is a stilted note to the phrasing which interferes with my involvement in the tale. Some of the earnest conversations on literature and philosophy are too stiff and unnatural. With a sense of frustration, I wanted to rewrite large sections of potentially moving or interesting scenes.

The pace is a little too slow, with a lack of "narrative drive" and episodes or encounters which "drift away to nothing" – rather like real life, I suppose e.g. the scenes with the beautiful Martha's admirers and her own eventual "disappearance" from the story.

The story would have made a greater impact with pruning away of some lengthy passages which added little. The lesbianism, with hints of incest, seemed to me pointless distractions from the main story – except perhaps the love between Martha and Leontine serves to show a freedom of expression allowed in "fashionable circles" in the 20s but suppressed as decadent by the Nazis.

This story is too harrowing to be enjoyable, and it is certainly not a page turner, although I think memories of certain scenes will remain with me such as Helene's mushroom-hunting expedition in the forest, made horrific by her encounter with the cattle trucks carrying Jewish prisoners, which she cannot fully comprehend at the time, although the reader can, with the benefit of hindsight. The scene also foreshadows her appalling yet understandable abandonment of the son whom she loves, yet also finds a burden.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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