The Girl Who Wasn’t There

Written by Ferdinand von Schirach

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.

The Girl Who Wasn’t There
Little Brown
RRP: £12.99
Released: January 8, 2015

This one is different from Guilt and The Collini Case. Schirach is fascinated by the basics of photography: light, illusion, colour. His latest novel is sectioned: Green, Red, Blue, White. He quotes one, Hermann von Helmholz, who says that when mixed in equal proportions the first three appear as white.

“Green”  follows Sebastian von Eschburg, a German aristocrat, through infancy and a disastrous boyhood to brilliant but haunted success as an avant-gard photographer in modern Berlin. The section ends with some attempt at exorcism when he confesses his hideous nightmares to his lover.

“Red” continues the horrors: sexual sadism, anguished pleas for help from a tormented  woman, her blood on instruments - or someone’s blood; the suspect confessing to the crime, himself subject to torture in a police cell. The confessor is Sebastian.

“Blue” is Biegler: reluctant attorney for the defence, a  neurotic and droll workaholic, hilarious in the alpine resort to which his doctor sends him after diagnosing burnout. Biegler hates mountains, fresh air, tourists, and says so, rudely. In immediate contrast the atmosphere at Sebastian’s trial for murder is surreal and fraught. There has never been a trial like this with shades of truth and deception, echoes of Guantanamo and 9/11, and where even the police are articulate.

The last colour, the one that “seems to us to be white” is short: one page. It depicts life as progress from illusion through nihilism to ultimate awareness that no more is needed than to cast a line into a river and observe the colours of an artificial fly.

The book is a mirror presented by Schirach to reflect ourselves. Again it is ably translated by Anthea Bell but the style this time is lost in the concentration needed to work things out. As with all important books it benefits precisely from a second reading.

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