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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Empty Hearts

Juli Zeh

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Empty Hearts

Title: Empty Hearts
Author: Juli Zeh
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 270 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Empty Hearts - US
Empty Hearts - UK
Empty Hearts - Canada
Leere Herzen - Deutschland
  • German title: Leere Herzen
  • Translated by John Cullen

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Our Assessment:

B : fast-paced, somewhat under-developed thriller

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FASz . 16/11/2017 Julia Encke
The LA Times . 17/8/2019 Paula L. Woods
The NY Times Book Rev. . 28/7/2019 Adam Sternbergh
Die Zeit . 14/11/2017 Jacqueline Thör

  From the Reviews:
  • "Man folgt der Handlung gebannt. Weil alles Gesellschaftliche so schematisch bleibt und die Handlung die Erzählung so über die Maßen beherrscht, ja eigentlich alles an diesem Roman im Dienst des Plots steht (und nur als dessen grob gearbeitete Kulisse dient), es keinen Überschuss gibt, bleibt Leere Herzen allerdings ein Gedankenspiel und wird anders als bei Sorokin, Sansal, Houellebecq oder Eggers nicht zur Vision. (...) Nichts weist über das Buch hinaus. Nichts liefert einen neuen Blick auf unser Heute und auf unsere Gesellschaft. Man fühlt sich einfach nur gut unterhalten." - Julia Encke, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

  • "With so much political context backgrounding the plot, Empty Hearts explores interesting ideas about the price of failure to act against tyranny and the moral complicity of people who capitalize on a bad situation, or do nothing in the hopes that it will all go away. On this level, Empty Hearts works as a cerebral thriller, even if the logic of some charactersí actions doesnít quite hold together." - Paula L. Woods, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Empty Hearts has the veneer of a thriller but itís more accurate to call it a chiller: chilling in the accuracy of its satire and chilling in its diagnosis of our modern malaise. The novel may appear at first glance to be a facile "Wake up, yuppies !" parable, but it guides us with assurance toward thornier terrain. For starters: How eager would you be to abandon your democratic principles in the fight to preserve them ? How eager should you be ?" - Adam Sternbergh, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Mal wieder ist es Zeh gelungen, ihre klugen Gedanken über die Widersprüche in unserer Gesellschaft literarisch so miteinander zu verknüpfen, dass ein spannender Roman daraus entstanden ist. Leere Herzen ist das deutsche Äquivalent zu Michel Houellebecqs dystopischem Werk Unterwerfung. (...) Manchmal fragt man sich da, warum die Autorin ihre Idee nicht direkt als Drama oder Drehbuch umgesetzt hat." - Jacqueline Thör, 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:

       Empty Hearts is set in the near-future -- 2025 -- and grounded in the politics and history of recent years. There have been some geopolitical shifts in this Trump-influenced post-Brexit world, notably:

American isolationism halted Israeli settlement policies and as a result almost inadvertently brought about a two-state solution and a peace treaty between Israel and Palestine. The economic war between Europe and the U.S. transformed the Middle East into a lucrative outlet for American product, and this in turn caused the whole region to flourish. Practically all at once, Islamic terror stopped being a global problem, and now ISIS has dwindled from the Western world's scariest nightmare to a handful of decadent warlords.
       Angela Merkel has been packed off into retirement here too, and German politics is now dominated by a populist Concerned Citizens' Crusade (CCC) party, which is slowly but very surely undermining democracy and democratic institutions. People are: "doing well, maybe even better than before"-- even as they feel they've lost: "politics, religion, a sense of community, the belief in a better world". The pop tune of the day from which the novel takes its title, by twelve-year-old Molly Richter, has lyrics that sum the general malaise up: "Full Hands Empty Hearts/It's a Suicide World Baby".
       For main character Britta, who lives in backwater Braunschweig with husband Richard and their young daughter, suicide is also her business. Together with Iraqi refugee Babak she runs 'The Bridge'. They don't advertise what they do too loudly -- "Psychotherapy and applied depth psychology, self-managing, life coaching, ego polishing" is what it says on the door, and in fact they generally seek out their patients, rather than waiting for them to find them -- but basically they help would-be suicides. Mostly, they help them figure out if they really want to end their lives. There's even a twelve-step program -- or barrage of tests -- (with one additional surprise round for those who get that far) that their clients go through, to see how serious they are about going through with it. Oh, yes, and there's that additional service The Bridge provides, which earns them a good bit of cash, as they arrange for those who are truly committed to ending it to go out with the kind of bang that some groups are willing to pay very well for.
       This premise is a bit far-fetched, from the ethical concerns (though there's an effort to minimize the fall-out, at least as far as other people goes, when someone does decide to put an end to it all) to why they've been able to operate for over a decade now without even the threat of being closed down. As someone asks, very late in the day:
"As the years passed, did you ever ask yourself why the authorities left you in peace ?"
     "No," says Britta. "We always assumed that our work served the public interest."
     "There's a confident reply."
       Indeed .....
       Zeh does have a fun time imagining the workings of the operation, from The Bridge's unprepossessing offices to the algorithm Babak has been tinkering with for years, Lassie:
She feels at home not only in the visible web, but in the dark web too. She runs on ahead, nose to ground, sniffing the corners, both bright and dim, of human communication, establishing links. At the same time, she makes evaluations, assigning scores of between 1 and 12 on the suicidal tendencies scale developed by Britta.
       Their easy-going routine now gets upended, however. It begins with an amateur-hour would-be suicide attack in Leipzig -- a failure in pretty much every way (well, one of the bombers did manage to die, so there's that). Both Britta and Babak are immediately on high alert. The bombers weren't their clients (and when Babak feeds their data into Lassie they come back with such low suicidal scores that The Bridge wouldn't have even taken notice of them), and Babak tries to reassure Britta: "This probably has nothing at all to do with us".
       Or maybe it has everything to do with them ... ?
       One of the few explanations they can think of is one that doesn't appeal to them at all: maybe The Bridge is getting competition, someone trying to muscle in on their territory and expertise. Britta certainly has good reason to be increasingly paranoid -- most notably about Guido Hatz, the angel investor who suddenly gets in touch with her husband Richard and invests a bundle in his app start-up, Smart Swap. Britta is immediately suspicious -- probably for good reason:
     "Never heard of him."
     "Google doesn't know him either."
       Hatz knows a lot about Britta and her doings, and tells her outright that she should take a break and enjoy living off of Richard's new-found success for a while; he also pitches himself as her 'guardian angel' -- something she has trouble imagining.
       Odd, too, is the appearance of a client at The Bridge's doorstep: they get few walk-ins, and they essentially never deal with women. Then here comes Julietta, certain she wants to put an end to her life -- and scoring through the roof when her numbers are run through Lassie. They can't help but be impressed: they have another candidate who is showing great promise, having fulfilled all the requirements and steps, but, as Babak sums up for Britta:
     "Marquardt's a safe bet," he says. "But Julietta's the bomb."
       Their paranoia has led them to sequester Lassie off-site, but a bold break-in in their offices nevertheless leads to the loss of candidate-information that could be invaluable in the right (or wrong) hands -- cleverly disguised in plain sight, but not so cleverly that those who got it will need very long to get the information they want. Suddenly, Britta is very, very nervous -- and, with Babak and Julietta, goes on the run.
       Can they escape the apparent threat to their lives and livelihoods ? Does Julietta even want to ? (She has a by now very pronounced death-wish, after all .....) And what is the plot forming around them -- and what can be done to foil it ? Or should it not be foiled at all ... ?
       Zeh's thriller-plot continues to be rather far-fetched -- cinematic or made-for-TV over the top simplistic -- but offers more than a passing nod to the moral implications of actions and inaction. It doesn't quite work -- that ship largely sailed with the suicidal premise of The Bridge -- but at least she tosses it in the mix, and tries to treat it seriously. It lets Britta realize where it all went wrong, for her and her fellow man(kind):
"I never voted for the CCC, never grumbled about Europe and the powers that be, never participated in an online firestorm. I simply decided to do my own thing. For years, I thought I was too good to follow the newsfeeds." She shakes her head and pushes her hair back with both hands. People like me are to blame for the current state of affairs, not CCC extremists. Regula Freyer won her election through the ballot box, whereas my best friend decided, at least hypothetically, that she would exchange her right to vote for a washing machine. And I looked down on her decision too, because I thought I had better arguments for standing by and doing nothing."
       Eventually, of course, she's pushed to act -- or at least forced to make choices. It amounts to trying to save the world. Does she do the right thing ? Zeh nicely makes it so it is not entirely obvious what the right thing is in these circumstances. Britta's solution is certainly 'right' on some level -- but also doesn't promise to better the overall situation, certainly not immediately.
       It's a lot of ethical-dilemma material the book and the characters are burdened with, and that initial hurdle -- The Bridge's very questionable business practice -- complicates everything else, too. For such weighty material, Zeh has opted for a very breezy story -- agreeably fast-paced, but certainly thin in way too many regards. The incidental activity -- family and friends (which basically amounts to just the hapless but happy-go-lucky couple Knut and Janina, who have a daughter the same age as Richard and Britta's child) and the descriptions of day-to-day business and life -- is what's most successful (except when it gets too predictable, as in the safe-house Britta, Babak, and Julietta retreat to). The suicidal drift of a society sinking into fatal anomie, on the other hand, could definitely do with more exposition. And the bad guys are more than just a little bit silly (though, of course, so are most dedicated-to-the-cause (whatever silly cause -- nation, religion, or other nonsense -- it is) militants).
       Empty Hearts is a thriller for these times, both in subject matter -- it practically screams, on every page: relevant ! -- and in its essentially TV-formatted ultra-quick (and thin ...) presentation and handling of the issues. It is, ultimately, simply too quick -- in its action and its many leaps, including through moral and other kinds of hoops -- but is certainly adequately satisfying as a pass-time read or book-club selection (lots to discuss !).

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 July 2019

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Empty Hearts: Reviews: Juli Zeh: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       German author Juli Zeh was born in 1974.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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