gets off to a rather lurid start--the first sentence takes us into the middle of an autopsy--but it soon becomes apparent that Melitta Breznik is aiming for more than just shock value. As the novel moves from a graphic description of the meat and bones that make up the human body into the consciousness of the narrator (a young female physician), it sets up one of the central concerns of the book: the dichotomy between body and soul. Leaving the pathologist's laboratory to return to her ward, the physician passes an elderly man who is dying in a ward storeroom:
His wife is leaving as he gasps for air and his face turns a deeper and deeper shade of violet. Rats always leave a sinking ship; we are no longer used to being there when someone dies. I stay, his death doesn't really mean anything to me. It will gnaw at me later, right now there is nothing more I can do.
The unnamed protagonist's sense of futility in her profession extends to her private life, as well; her job has returned her to the small Austrian town where she was born and raised and where her father, a hopeless alcoholic, is slowly dying. As she juggles the exhausting responsibilities of work with the exigencies of caring for her elderly relative, the narrative slips back and forth between memories of her childhood and the present moment. Neither place is particularly hopeful. In the aftermath of World War II, the narrator's German mother journeys to Austria to make a life with the man she met and married several years before in Germany. Life quickly goes downhill, as the father loses his job and his dignity, their parents' marriage disintegrates into violence, a child dies, and eventually the rest of the family washes up on the inhospitable shores of poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism. All this is juxtaposed with the doctor's current struggle to remain human--and humane--in the face of medicine's tendency to reduce patients to less than the sums of their parts. The victories are small: at age 60, the narrator's mother finally leaves her abusive husband and starts a modest life of her own; the narrator herself achieves some kind of rapprochement with her dying father; and the disappointments are great. Yet this spare, sad novel traces the contours of blighted lives sympathetically-- resolutely, without pity. It is not about victims; it is simply about life. --Alix Wilber
From Publishers Weekly
This short, sparely written and stunning first novel portrays a besieged and resolute doctor, her alcoholic father and the damage he's done to his grown children. Breznik, a psychiatrist born in Austria, now practicing in Zurich, uses her psychoanalytic expertise to good effect, setting her fiction apart from other novels about family trauma. The narrator, a pathologist in her 30s, strives for professional detachment as she visits her patients, first those she treats in the hospital, and then her own father, once outgoing and friendly, now shriveled, debilitated and floating in a fog of blurred memories, his recurrent headaches aggravated by the metal plate in his skull implanted after an operation. Breznik never names her major characters, which accentuates her clinical stance: this family portrait is as coolly precise and jolting as an Egon Schiele painting. The pathologist's stream-of-consciousness flashbacks fill in a roster of other disasters: we learn of her German mother, shunned as an outsider in Austria; of her dead brother; of another brother, a sullen runaway; of life in wartime Austria. Father is not entirely unsympathetic: he enlists in the Austrian army to avoid having to join the Nazi Party. Mother has heart attacks, attempts suicide and finally separates from her husband. The narrator's stoic resolve in facing her father's death renders this unflinching look at life's messy end-game oddly bracing and brave.
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