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Blindness of the Heart: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 5, 2010

3.2 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Why would a mother abandon her seven-year-old son at a train station in 1945 Germany just as the fighting ends? In her powerful first novel to be translated into English, Franck poses the question before tracking back to the woman's WWI childhood. As the story progresses from one war to the next, Franck wrestles with a much broader question--why did so many Germans appear blind to the horrors on their horizon? Helene is the younger of two daughters of an Aryan father who survives the battlefield to die a pitiful death at home, and a Jewish mother who is something of a 20th-century Cassandra. The sisters flee rural life (and their mother) and are taken in by a relative in Berlin, where they are engulfed by the city's interwar debauchery. But as the economy deteriorates and the political situation heats up, Helene and her sister make do with fewer resources and dwindling freedoms. Helene finds love with a Jewish philosophy student, but succumbs, after a cruel twist, to another, colder man. Franck's insights are profound and alarming, and her storytelling makes the familiar material read fresh.
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* In a crowded train station in 1945, as throngs of Germans flee to the West, Helene tells her seven-year-old son to sit on a bench and wait while she goes to the lavatory, but she never returns. And thus Franck’s U.S. debut begins with the unsettling question of what sort of circumstances could lead a mother to abandon her son. As the author shows us, the answer is as much historical as it is psychological. From her childhood in a village on the Spree, Helene’s is a life filled with hardship precipitated by historical circumstance: a father who returns from the Great War broken and gangrenous, a sister whose immersion in the hedonism of 1920s Berlin leads to debilitating addiction, a cruel and despondent mother whose mental illness and Jewish ancestry eventually require Helene to change her very identity, and a harsh Nazi husband to whom she acquiesces, having lost her true love in a tragic accident. Although squarely within the venerable genre of the German multigenerational novel, this selection is both more astute and more subtle than most realist works addressing Germany’s twentieth-century “blindness of the heart.” A sensation when published in Germany in 2007 (in part because of certain autobiographical aspects), it will show U.S. audiences why Franck deserves all of the praise she is getting abroad. --Brendan Driscoll

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; First Edition edition (October 5, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802119670
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802119674
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,149,139 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWER on October 6, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The Blindness of the Heart, a prize-winning novel by Julia Franck, spans the period of the two world wars in Germany, focusing on the effects of these wars on seemingly ordinary German citizens. In the dramatic Prologue, which takes place in 1945, a young boy and Alice, his mother, arrive at a train station hoping to escape the post-war horrors. For the boy, however, the horrors are just beginning. His mother abandons him at the station, without any warning, leaving behind written instructions on where to deliver him.

The theme of abandonment pervades the novel during its thirty-year time span. Many of the characters, abandoned by people they love, abandon others, in turn, avoiding responsibility on many fronts. Part I changes focus and time completely, from the time of the Prologue back to pre-World War I. The personal stories of several members of the Wursich family, often told in flashbacks, form the backbone of the novel, with the focus on Helene, the youngest daughter of Selma, a housewife with a Jewish background, and Ernst, the owner of a printing company. Helene, nine years younger than her sister Martha, is always an outsider in the social action of the family. Her mother has become a voluntary invalid, and her father, drafted to fight in World War I, returns crippled and half-blind.

When Martha and Helene, feeling abandoned by their parents, in turn abandon their home and move to Berlin with their aunt, Martha finds her escape from the troubles of the times by seeking the high life. Helene seeks academic opportunities and eventually falls in love with a philosophy student, familiar with the theories of Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Cassirer.
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Format: Hardcover
In the original German version, so I've been told, the title of this book is Die Mittagsfrau, or "The Noonday Witch". According to legend, the witch appears in the heat of day to spirit away children from their distracted parents. Those who are able to engage the witch in a short conversation find that her witch-like powers evaporate.

In Julia Franck's brilliant English version (translated by the very talented Anthea Bell), Helene gradually retreats into silence and passivity, losing her ability to communicate effectively. We meet her in the book's prologue as the mother of an eight-year-old boy, leading her son towards a packed train in the direction of Berlin. Before the train arrives she tells him a white lie, abandoning him at a bench, never to return. In the succeeding 400 pages, the reader gains a glimpse as to what drove Helene to this most unnatural act.

Helene is born into a family that defines the word "dysfunction". Her charismatic, morphine-addicted older sister Martha engages her in an incestuous relationship. Her mentally unbalanced "foreign" (i.e., Jewish) mother is unable to connect with her two daughters, totally distancing from them when their father goes off to fight the Great War and becomes grievously injured. When the two sisters gain the chance to flee to Berlin, they grab it and train as nurses, exposing them to the pain of their patients and also giving them ready access to drugs.

Martha fits right into the debauchery and frantic partying of a decaying Berlin with her enlightened free-thinking friend and physician-lover, Leontine, but Helene is far more circumspect and sensitive. Her one enduring love is a philosophy student named Carl who also feels deeply and tells her, "The God principle is built on pain.
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Format: Hardcover
It is 1945: the horrors of the war are subsiding, yet devastation, poverty and fear are far from over for a young mother and her child. The urgency to flee west is paramount; all Germans have to leave Stettin ... Helene and her son Peter having finally succeeded in boarding an overcrowded train, leave for Berlin. At a small transfer station, Peter is asked to wait for his mother on the platform... She never returns. Julia Franck's novel, BLINDNESS OF THE HEART (in German: DIE MITTAGSFRAU) could not have started more dramatically with this Prologue. The author, captivated by her own father's childhood experience and trauma, took the search for possible explanations for her grandmother's behaviour, as a starting point for her book. The resulting novel has turned into a fictional, wide-ranging psychological portrait of a complex and emotionally shattered young woman, who lived through two world wars and, for her not less dramatic, the time in between.

Franck's novel is a thought-provoking and, at times, unsettling and disturbing story of one person's deep love and loss, loneliness and rejection, responsibility and neglect, and the desperate, sometimes incomprehensible, will to survive. While primarily focusing on the portrayal of Helene, and her difficult relationships to her family and close surroundings, the author, nevertheless, reaches beyond the private and individual sphere into the depiction of sections of a society in chaos and upheaval. This applies especially to the Berlin's "Golden Twenties". Franck goes into some length in bringing to life the exuberant, careless and, with hindsight, totally naive behaviour of the bourgeois middle class.
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