Judith Hermann (Margot Bettauer Dembo (transl.)
(The Clerkenwell Press, 2016); pbk, £10.99
Where love begins is Judith Hermann’s second work of fiction. It follows her 2009 success Alice; a collection of five interconnected short stories. Herman’s new novel follows a similar framework to her previous fiction, allowing her readers snapshots into her protagonist’s domestic lifestyle.
Stella’s life in a German suburb is monotonous. Her days are preoccupied with getting her daughter – Ava – ready for kindergarten and then undertaking dull domestic tasks before going to work as an in-house nurse of the elderly. Stella has little time for herself; her life is like a carousel of small repetitive tasks with little or no meaning.
Apart from her workplace; Stella has very little adult communication; her husband Jason has to travel distances for work and most of Stella’s time is spent with Ava, who is “going on five.” Thus Stella is a lonely soul who longs for adult companionship. She frequently writes letters to her old friend, Clara, and wonders at different points in the day, “what is Jason doing?” When a stranger begins to visit her home asking for a conversation she responds with silence and begins obsessing internally as to why he is frequently visiting and leaving strange objects such as a card and odd notes. Thus the plot begins to follow a “cat and mouse” structure which intensifies the need for answers that the protagonist and reader both feel.
Where Love Begins is written flat and somewhat monotonous, uncomplicated prose. The slow pace – although intentional- intensifies the dull atmosphere. Hermann’s prose is written in present tense which gives little away. There is a creepy neighbor, Mister Pfister, and his actions coupled with the present tense narration sparks readers’ interest and keeps up tension. Thus despite the flat prose and ostensible lack of action, the reader’s curiosity is piqued for a short period.
This novel gradually unveils the terror associated with extraordinary things happening to ordinary people. The fear is in the not knowing, a feeling which Stella is unaccustomed to as she seldom strays from her daily routines. Mister Pfister threatens the domestic security Stella has created for her and her young family. Hermann tackles the issue of stalking well; with every strange attempt at conversation from the stranger, it becomes increasingly apparent that Stella could be under threat. Yet the writer allows for a slither of doubt as Stella wonders whether it is her own hostile energy or whether Mister Pfister is in fact crossing boundaries. Her behaviour is erratic; she begins to choose not to leave her household, and hides the level of stalking from her husband. This is highlighted through her repetition of societal norms. The encounters between Stella and Pfister are ambivalently rendered; we do not know if she is imagining him or if she is really being stalked. Hermann increases this message through the narrator’s declaration that “Everything you feel or experience takes place only within you; there’s only the ‘inside us’.”
Hermann’s writing style creates some tension but ultimately her plot doesn’t catch up with her prose. The reader waits for a climatic scene only to be disappointed when the novel flatlines. The confrontation between Jason and Mister Pfister is disappointingly brief and seems somewhat random. The novel reads as one long subtle tease which lulls to an anticlimax.