Blind Side of the Heart Paperback
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Top international reviews
Julia Frank's novel is a harrowing story that delineates the life and times of Helene Wursich, the second daughter to a family of four. Set mainly in the German town of Bautzen and Berlin, it begins with a prologue that sets out the direction and tone of the novel. In the prologue eight year old Peter witnesses his mother being raped by soldiers. Subsequently, in an act that could only be judged harsh by any standard, almost as if unburdening herself of a heavy weight, Peter's mother, Helene, abandon him at a train station. Following the prologue, the story that begins leaps back in time to when Helene was a child growing up in Bautzen with her family. Tragedy befalls the Wursich family. The father is called to fight in the First World War, the Jewish mother falls into depression as a result and when her husband returns from the war seriously injured she withdraws from the family. The mother's problems are compounded by the fact that she has lost four sons in child birth. The two daughters Martha and Helene are left to run the household, weary of this responsibility and after the death of their father they move to Berlin to live with an aunt called Fanny. There a new world opens up to the two sisters. The novel then focuses its attention on Helene and the world in which the story is narrated is broadly seen through the experiences of Helene - in other words the novel becomes Helene's story.
Franck's novel is ambitious and far reaching as she delves into the lives of the Wursich family. It is a well observed story that although seen mainly from the perspective of Helene there are nonetheless shifts in perspective where in the early stage of the novel things are seen through the eyes of the two sisters, Martha and Helene, and towards the very end through the eyes of Peter. To some extent this shift in perspective kept the narrative alive.
Through three generations of the Wursich family, Franck undertakes a subtle examination of German society across the first and second world wars. The Wursich family is symbolic of the outsider in a society that was to become more and more inward looking with its notion of a pure Aryan race. The family effectively live in fear as Helene's mother has to conceal her Jewishness right through to Helene's husband forging a new identity for her and changes her name to Alice. There is grave suffering and pathos as Franck outlines the experience of the Wursich's at the hands of the majority. Helene's sister Martha is eventually taken off to work in a labour camp, her mother dies in an institution, her aunt Fanny is displaced and her property seized and Helene suffers terribly at the hands of her husband, Wilhelm.
Having stated the above, I must say that one of problems I had with the novel was that it is overlong. It is a cliché to say of many novels that they could have done with better editing but cliché or not that for me was clearly the case with this novel. In the middle sections of the novel there are some dull mundane descriptive passages. The purpose of this may well be to hammer home the point about lives being imposed upon by the time and social conditions. This is understandable but it was over done. And there were times when I said to myself I have got the message, now move the narrative on. All this is not helped by the fact that the story is told at a very slow pace.
Another problem that I had with the novel was that the story is told through the third person omniscient narrator. Given the subject and issues addressed in the novel that for me was a weakness. It's a story of some painful hard hitting human suffering but for me because of the third person, impersonal, narration it lacked a clear voice in which to convey it powerful themes. In large passages of the novel I was not fully engaged and was unable to empathise with the characters at times. In other words, the narration was too clinical. Nonetheless, a word of praise must be paid to the translator, Anthea Bell, as she appears to have captured the tone and sparseness of the original German text. There is very little use of adjectives or metaphors.
Putting aside my criticism, The Blind Side of the Heart is a multifaceted novel. On one level it is an exploration of love - love between sisters, between husband and wife, and parent and child. Franck brilliantly shows the complex nature of love. It can be based on a foundation of unrequited feelings, it is cruel, it is tender and it could be shown by simple kindness. This exploration of love is brilliantly depicted in the chapter that deals with the father's Ernst Wursich, drafting into the First World War when he leaves his wife at home threatening to kill herself. Franck's artistic achievement here is that she reminds us of the difficult choices one sometimes have to make in the name of love - for example love of one's spouse or of one's country.
Yet on another level The Blind Side of the Heart is a dark novel. There are some harsh brutalities outlined - for example, in the relationship between Helen and her husband Wilhelm. The dark passages depict a powerful story of Helene's descent into isolation and tragic loss. But there is also hope as we observe a family's endurance even in debts of despair. The death bed reconciliation between Ernst and his wife Selma is a telling manifestation of human endurance.
That the novel is ambitious can be seen by the fact that it is also a novel of ideas. In one passage Franck tries to tease out what some of the great moral philosophers had to say about the human quest for pleasure and happiness. Franck also raises the question of human faith and belief in a God that does not manifest himself especially in time of need and it is out of this discussion that the significance of the title arises. In a church Helene over hears a mother answers her child, who literally asks where is God, by telling the child: "No one can see him, said the mother, you can't see him with your eyes. You have to see him with your heart, child." Well just as one needs a leap of faith to see God with the heart, I guess Franck is saying so too the heart can close its eyes to suffering and do harsh things in order to survive.
The Blind Side of the Heart is a novel that quietly states its powerful themes. Although moving at times overall the novel does not pull at the emotions. It is a novel that commands a thoughtful read but at the end it is worth the effort required to read it. Despite my reservation perhaps it deserves its success.