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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Girl Who Wasn't There

Ferdinand von Schirach

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To purchase The Girl Who Wasn't There

Title: The Girl Who Wasn't There
Author: Ferdinand von Schirach
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 216 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Girl Who Wasn't There - US
The Girl Who Wasn't There - UK
The Girl Who Wasn't There - Canada
The Girl Who Wasn't There - India
Tabou - France
Tabu - Deutschland
Tabù - Italia
Tabú - España
  • German title: Tabu
  • Translated by Anthea Bell

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Our Assessment:

B : promising first half, but fumbles the transition to murder-mystery/trial

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ C 14/9/2013 Hannes Hintermeier
The Guardian . 2/1/2015 Laura Wilson
The Independent . 22/1/2015 Boyd Tonkin
Irish Times . 11/4/2015 Declan Burke
Le Monde . 22/9/2016 Eric Chevillard
The Observer A 28/12/2014 Alison Flood
The Spectator . 24/1/2015 Jeff Noon
The Telegraph A 29/1/2015 Christian House
Die Zeit F 5/9/2013 Ulrich Greiner

  Review Consensus:

  Big UK-German split, UK mostly very positive, Germans dismissive

  From the Reviews:
  • "Das ist stilistisch nicht besonders aufregend: Das Stakkato der Parataxen macht noch lange keine Lakonik, und manche Textpassagen lesen sich so, als habe der Autor auf eine andere Homepage verlinken wollen, weil man dort Wissenswertes über das Nietzsche-Haus in Sils-Maria, das Stadtbad Charlottenburg, Dylan Thomas, Caspar David Friedrich oder eben Goya erfahren kann. Die Gefühlslage der Figuren ist kalt und einsam, die Beziehung zu Sofia jederzeit brüchig, die Dialoge der beiden sind bedeutungsschwanger bis banal (.....) Unvermittelt kippt die Erzählung in von Schirachs ureigene Welt. Die Prosa wirkt nun, als habe ihr Verfasser aufgeatmet." - Hannes Hintermeier, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Itís an examination of the disconnection between truth and reality that is tantalising and disturbing in equal measure." - Laura Wilson, The Guardian

  • "All is not as it seems. (...) This centaur of a story, half-study of the alienated artist with a traumatic past and half-portrait of the lawyer as cantankerous philosopher of truth, may baffle or frustrate crime buffs. Other readers will enjoy its free and quizzical approach to genre expectations Ė and the swift, clean, enigmatic prose that Anthea Bell translates with her flawless grace." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "Employing an elliptical narrative style that leaps over aspects of the story more conventional crime writers might focus on, von Schirach weaves a tale that challenges the readerís preconceived notions of the crime novel and the myth of justice it peddles. An invigorating, thought-provoking read." - Declan Burke, Irish Times

  • "Tout n’est pas absolument convaincant dans ce livre, néanmoins l’audace de l’entreprise mérite d’être saluée. (...) Le tournant policier du livre, avouons-le, ressemble plutôt à une sortie de route. L’histoire est tirée par les cheveux – d’une perruque, de surcroît, tant tout cela nous paraît théâtral, avec un enquêteur qui est la caricature de tous les héros de la littérature policière. Nous nous doutons que ce trompe-l’œil littéraire fait écho aux recherches photographiques de Sebastian, mais la plume de l’auteur s’alourdit, son trait s’épaissit." - Eric Chevillard, Le Monde

  • "(A)n enigmatic, absorbing little book. (...) So we have, in Von Schirachís ice-cool, effortlessly classy prose, an antihero accused of murder, who sees the world in too-vivid colour, and his bumptious defence lawyer, who sees everything in shades of grey. It makes for a disconcerting mix of build-up and anticlimax, tension and humour, lies and truth, and a novel as intriguingly eccentric as its protagonist." - Alison Flood, The Observer

  • "Schirach is certainly courageous, because this is not a book that offers comfortable pleasures. The protagonist isnít exactly sympathetic, and the story keeps turning away from a linear pathway. I just wish it delivered the goods more. The reader invests time in the murder mystery, only to see it pulled away in a final twist. Literature teases; genre fiction delivers." - Jeff Noon, The Spectator

  • "The misconduct of aristocrats is well-trodden literary turf, yet von Schirachís milieu of hunting lodges and forested estates is new, as is his blend of legal pyrotechnics, rattling plot and existential questions. (...) This is an effective riddle of a novel. Details accumulate, tensions build and misdirection abounds, while Anthea Bellís crisp translation accentuates von Schirachís cool, pointillist prose." - Christian House, The Telegraph

  • "Den neuen Roman Ferdinand von Schirachs habe ich nicht verstanden, selbst nach zweimaliger Lektüre nicht. (...) Ende gut, alles gut. Der Roman jedoch ist schlecht. Schirach liebt das philosophische Faseln, den bedeutungsschwangeren Psychologismus. Und er hantiert mit einer ästhetischen Theorie, die das Ineinander und das Gegeneinander verschiedener Ebenen von Wirklichkeit anschaulich machen soll. (...) Schirach neigt dazu, seine Geschichte mit erzählerischen Dingen zu möblieren, die eine aparte Atmosphäre erzeugen sollen. (...) Um es deutlich zu sagen: Ferdinand von Schirach kann nicht schreiben. Natürlich kann er Texte verfassen, sachdienliche, scharfsinnige, kluge, schließlich ist er ein erfolgreicher Anwalt. Aber es fehlt ihm die Gabe der Imagination, des Herbeizauberns einer neuen Welt, der literarischen Subtilität." - Ulrich Greiner, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The girl of the (English) title isn't there in any form at all -- even in her absence -- for the first half of this unusually structured book, and it sure looks like the publishers were trying to ride that recent 'Girl'-in-the-title publishing tidal wave. Still, it's accurate enough in describing at least a major part of the book -- the (eventual) crime and trial, which has all the hallmarks of a murder except a body. The original title, however -- and the one that pretty much all the other translations stuck to -- was Tabu ('taboo'), suggesting Schirach's focus is on something entirely different. And, as it turns out, Schirach's twisty conceptual thriller tries to have it all -- which is one of the problems with the book.
       The epigraph to The Girl Who Wasn't There, by Hermann von Helmholtz, also suggests and serves as a blueprint:

As soon as the light of the colours
green, red and blue
is mixed in equal proportions
it seems to us to be white.
       After a brief, one-page introductory page, The Girl Who Wasn't There is indeed presented divided into four parts (albeit not of equal proportions, at least in terms of length). The first half of the book or so is a section titled 'Green', followed by just under ten pages of 'Red', then 'Blue' almost the entire rest of the way, until the concluding, single-page (presumable) summa, 'White'; the first three sections each also have a different central figure.
       The first section focuses on Sebastian von Eschburg, the last in the line of a once wealthy family that had, over the course of the twentieth century, lost pretty much everything ecept the now run-down family estate. This first half of the book recounts Eschburg's childhood -- including the trauma of his father's suicide --, his (lack of a ) relationship with his distant mother -- always more interested in her horses -- and the creep she marries, his years at boarding school. Eventually, Eschburg apprentices as a photographer, and then strikes out very successfully on his own.
       He does seem a bit off. As even the woman he becomes involved with and is closest to, Sofia, observes:
     'You're never entirely with me,' she said. 'There's always only part of you here, while another part is somewhere else.'
       And he's always had a form of synesthesia, coloring in the world in his own way:
He saw what other people saw, but in his mind the colours were different. They had no names because there weren't enough words for them.
       (Tellingly, too: "Only his mother had no colour at all".)
       Eschburg earns a reputation as an artist, too, with his stylish, creative photography installations; Schirach describes the making of several of these, and they are clever artistic ideas. But Eschburg doesn't find the fulfilment he's looking for: he can't get at what he's really after through the art he's been making. As his crisis comes to the fore, he tells Sofia:
I was wrong. It was all wrong. Beauty is not truth.
       It is here, at its midway point, that the book shifts abruptly away from Eschburg. The central figure in the short second part is public prosecutor Monika Landau, and she is dealing with and then observing the interrogation of Eschburg, in connection with an overwhelming amount of damning evidence that points to him having murdered an unidentified young woman.
       The third part of the novel then centers on defense attorney Konrad Biegler, who breaks off what's meant to be a recuperative vacation to eventually take on Eschburg's case -- complicated by this time by the defendant's confession. All the other evidence is circumstantial -- though damningly pointing directly to Eschburg -- so a lot hinges on the confession. And there's a problem with the confession, and how it was obtained, which becomes the focal point of the preliminary parts of the trial. That, and the attempts at identifying the apparent victim, which also (bafflingly -- there's lots of blood/DNA evidence) takes longer than one might have expected.
       The crime is an intriguing one -- everything points to, indeed practically documents, murder, from a phone call the police received to the blood evidence -- yet, as Landau also recognizes: "Everything about this case was strange". Eschburg's actions and reactions, once he is a suspect, also don't help clear up things; he's not particularly forthcoming -- including then to Biegler. When Biegler asks him straight out whether or not he is the murderer (not really something defense lawyers should be asking their clients ...), Eschburg calmly wonders: "Is that important ?"
       Biegler isn't convinced of Eschburg's guilt or innocence -- though even to hm the evidence has to seem overwhelming -- but understands his job is to defend Eschburg against the charges. Eschburg doesn't really help Biegler along much; he seems to prefer to participate in the entire proceedings more as passive spectator than someone with something at stake. Hence also the focus in this section on Biegler, and Biegler's actions, rather than the passive Eschburg.
       Schirach operates a bit like Eschburg does with his art, a kind of smoke-and-mirrors approach, seemingly showing one thing, only to reveal that what one thinks one sees -- the very premises -- is, in fact, something entirely different. So also the legal focus of much of the trial -- presumably also the 'taboo' of the original title -- is something of a red herring; unfortunately, Schirach operates rather clumsily with it, and weighs his story down with a debate he's not fully willing to engage with.
       There are also aspects to the investigation that aren't entirely plausible: while the nature of the apparent victim's identity do pose a problem regarding identification, some obvious steps should have led the police or the prosecutor's office to unraveling that much earlier (it doesn't take Biegler very long); the fact that a revealing DNA test is also left for so late by the court also seems like a terrible (un)professional oversight.
       The second half of The Girl Who Wasn't There is modestly interesting as German-trial-procedural -- a system different from the adversarial American one (though Biegler is certainly adversarial in the courtroom towards the public prosecutor) -- but a bit clunky in its presentation; the first half of the book, a Bildungsroman showing Eschburg's development and evolution, and in which crime of any sort barely figures (just a bit of violence), is the far more engrossing and intriguing -- and better-written -- part of the novel.
       (Bonus-points, however, for Schirach injecting yet another phantom-figure into the novel, Eschburg's mysterious Ukrainian neighbor-tenant, who turns out to be yet another 'girl who wasn't there'.)
       The murder-premise itself turns out to be quite clever, but Schirach's somewhat hamfisted attempt to integrate it into courtroom drama makes it too clever by half. This is a novel with José Carlos Somoza-like ambitions (e.g. The Art of Murder), and it might have worked better drawn out to more Somoza-like lengths; as is, too much arguably skips along too quickly. The major feint in the novel also doesn't work well as used by Schirach; it's too weighty a matter to treat as casually as he ultimately does (passages that feel awkwardly stuffed into the court proceedings, and the novel), and too big a distraction to allow the pleasures of the actual clever premise to unfold as impressively as they might have.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 May 2018

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The Girl Who Wasn't There: Reviews: Ferdinand von Schirach: Other books by Ferdinand von Schirach under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ferdinand von Schirach, the grandson of Baldur von Schirach, is a German lawyer and writer. He was born in 1964.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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