Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce
You Would Have Missed Me by Birgit Vanderbeke translated by Jamie Bulloch
It’s almost surreal when her mother sings the birthday greetings, We’re so happy you were born, as every day her parents find proof of her badness and don’t hesitate to let her know. Her father keeps his fists in his pockets as long as he can, but the doctor she’s taken to for a cure for thumb-sucking suspects non-accidental injury. This being the 1960s it’s only medically followed up.
Along with the lie that theirs is a loving family, and a step up the ladder from the immigrants from Italy and the like, is that West Germany is the Promised Land. For our young narrator life was much better in the East with her extended family, or in the refugee camp where a ménage a trois her mother disapproved of went some way towards compensating for maternal neglect. In the East, Grandma cooked proper meals and baked, while in the West her mother serves tasteless dumplings in white sauce or a revolting-sounding milk soup. When her birthday cake makes her thirsty, she’s denied a drink as she had one that morning.
Her birthday might fail to deliver a cat, or the much more vital parental care, but a gift from her ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncles’ from the refugee camp gives her the idea that might save her life. The Time Machine might be a more suitable book for older children, but it provides the fantasy that she can travel forward through time and return with the voice of her older self. I’m not sure how much the author expects us to take her voice hearing at face value, but for children who hear voices it often provides a protective function, as it does here.
The blurb, focusing on ordinary disappointments and the transition from East to West, undersells what to me is a pitch-perfect account of what it’s like to be a child with no-one to help her translate her experience into words, because those whose primary purpose is to do so have a vested interest in concealing the truth. As psychologically astute on the veil draped around child mistreatment as the writings of Alice Miller, You Would Have Missed Me is set to be one of this year’s favourites. Although I think I prefer the German title Ich freue mich, dass ich geboren bin which translates as I'm happy I was born. Thanks to Peirene Press for my advance reading copy.
There’s an unhappy seven-year-old in my second novel, Underneath, about a man who seeks to resolve a relationship crisis by keeping a woman captive in a cellar. I’m reading from one of his sections in this video: