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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Dirk Kurbjuweit

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To purchase Fear

Title: Fear
Author: Dirk Kurbjuweit
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 257 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Fear - US
Fear - UK
Fear - Canada
Angst - Deutschland
  • German title: Angst
  • Translated by Imogen Taylor

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Our Assessment:

B : consistently engaging but mix of psychological thriller and German-society(-today) novel doesn't always work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 19/2/2013 Matthias Hannemann
The Guardian . 5/1/2018 Barry Forshaw
NZZ . 14/2/2013 Rainer Moritz
The Observer . 21/1/2018 Alex Preston
Sydney Morning Herald . 17/3/2017 Andrew Riemer
Die Zeit . 17/1/2013 Ijoma Mangold

  From the Reviews:
  • "Der Text, der dabei entsteht, besticht durch eine detailreiche, schnittige, im Windkanal des Magazin-Journalismus optimierte Sprache. Sie macht Dirk Kurbjuweits Thriller Angst, dieses als Skizze der bürgerlichen Befindlichkeiten verpackte Psychodrama, das auf einer realen Erfahrung des Schriftstellers aufsetzt, zu einer bemerkenswert leichten Lektüre." - Matthias Hannemann, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "While the tenser sections of the novel are handled efficiently enough, the real interest lies in the astringent picture of middle-class German society, with its schism between the haves and have-nots, something we’ve not seen before in contemporary crime fiction." - Barry Forshaw, The Guardian

  • "Wenn sich der Roman freilich ganz auf das Wechselspiel zwischen Rebecca und Randolph konzentriert, überzeugt er. Die Tiefenthalers halten diesem Druck nicht stand; der Rechtsstaat verliert, die Explosion ist nicht aufzuhalten, und Gewinner scheint es nicht zu geben." - Rainer Moritz, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The reading experience is a strange one, particularly if you know the basic details of the real-life case. You’re constantly on the lookout for the faultline between truth and fiction" - Alex Preston, The Observer

  • "Fundamentally, Fear is a smart, psychologically complex and morally acute fable of modern German society decked out in the garb of an intricate thriller. (...) This is a wry, complex, at times disturbing survey of middle-class German life in the decades since the end of World War II." - Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Dass man dem Schicksal, Sohn zu sein, nicht entkommt, entfaltet Kurbjuweit psychologisch so ausführlich und schulgerecht, dass am Ende leider gar keine Fragen offen bleiben. Da hat Kurbjuweit seinen Roman zu akkurat verschnürt, um ihm noch Luft zum Selberatmen zu lassen." - Ijoma Mangold, 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:

       Fear is an ambitious psychological thriller, from its presentation to everything that Kurbjuweit wants to address (and, boy, does he want to address a lot). On the one hand, it seems the story couldn't be simpler, with what happened appearing to be revealed in the book's first pages: narrator Randolph Tiefenthaler and his family (wife Rebecca and their two young children) were being harassed by the tenant in the flat below theirs, Dieter Tiberius. Seeing no other solution, Randolph's gun-loving father took care of things -- knocking on Tiberius' door and shooting him in cold blood. He gave himself up to the police, pleaded guilty, and has been in jail for the past six months.
       Of course, it isn't that simple. There's the issue of how complicit Randolph was in the act, how carefully it was (pre-)arranged (with Rebecca and the kids conveniently away, for example). And, of course, there's the issue of just how bad Tiberius' harassment was -- did he deserve to die ? One assumes the book will focus on the latter, and indeed it does, as Randolph tells the whole story, from when the family moved into the new apartment, but the former remains an issue as well. This despite Randolph making clear from the beginning:

     I rang the police. My father had asked me to, but it was in any case clear that this was the line we would take: no crazy getaway, no cover-up. We stood by the act. We still do -- I can say that without reservation.
       Yet readers may already here detect what becomes increasingly apparent as Randolph continues with his account: he seems to protest rather overmuch. And so also the very ambitious Kurbjuweit can't resist a final twist that upends much of the story when Randolph finally gets back around to recounting what happened that fatal day, as it turns out the seemingly clear-cut case and orderly disposition were a bit more complicated after all.
       Randolph is forty-five years old, and a reasonably successful architect; he and his family are comfortably established in contemporary Germany's broad middle class. Growing up, Randolph's family struggled some. Randolph's father worked in a Ford car dealership in Berlin, supporting a family with three children, but he had an expensive hobby: he was a gun fanatic. He almost always carried one on him, and he collected an impressive arsenal.
       The family was not enthusiastic about the gun-obsession. It terrified Randolph, and among his hated childhood memories are of his father dragging him to the shooting range. Of the three siblings, only his sister took to shooting, becoming a good marksman but then also abandoning it.
       Randolph describes a fearful childhood -- including always being worried about pops shooting someone, especially Randolph's younger brother, who had the biggest arguments with dad. Indeed, a gun even accidentally went off in the home once ..... Randolph is a pacifist -- avoiding military duty by doing social service instead, for example -- and would have given anything for his father to get rid of his guns (indeed, he once even tried to negotiate a literal disarmament treaty in the family ...). Nevertheless, while Randolph's father has an occasionally explosive temper -- as does practically everyone in the family, including Randolph's wife -- he remains controlled as far as his guns go. As a child, Randolph often feared there would be situations where his father might finally be tempted to pull his gun -- but he never does. He only pulls the trigger while at the shooting range.
       It seems the guns are just what guns are for everyone who clings to them: an insecure person's desperate attempt to maintain the illusion of some power and control. And he certainly takes it to extremes: the old man even keeps one under his pillow (a habit Randolph and his wife have to break when he stays over at their house, because of the kids).
       Randolph grew up in Cold War Berlin -- his mother was pregnant with him during the Cuban missile crisis, when nuclear obliteration seemed a distinct possibility -- and his childhood seems dominated by a fear of, essentially, a world that could collapse at any moment: Randolph always sees that finger on the trigger. Yet Randolph also maintains: "It was a normal childhood -- I insist on that". He insists repeatedly -- so also: "I want to stress here that even my teenage years were completely normal". Yes, intentionally and not very subtly, Kurbjuweit has Randolph definitely protest too much -- as it's clear that his childhood was anything but ("I had long ago thought up strategies for dodging bullets from one of my father's guns", etc. etc.).
       Randolph mentions that a school psychologist's report ascribed "inhibited aggression" to him, and we get to see some of that, too, especially in his close but contentious relationship with his peripatetic brother. Late in his story, Randolph also mentions a school friend recalling Randolph's behavior in a fight he had gotten into -- actions which suggest Randolph is capable of rather more than he otherwise lets on (and, worryingly, he has no recollection of what happened). But overall, Randolph shies away from physical confrontation -- he believes in a functioning society, with laws and institutions that protect us.
       A neighbor like Dieter Tiberius puts Randolph's beliefs to the test. The neighbor -- living off disability, his rent paid by social services -- is an outsider, who seems friendly and harmless enough. Until, of course, he becomes too friendly and more like a stalker. When things begin to get a bit confrontational, he accuses Randolph and Rebecca of sexually abusing their children -- an invidious claim that Randolph realizes is incredibly effective, putting him on the defensive (and even making him suspicious, against his own better judgment, of his wife). The family gets a lawyer, contacts the appropriate authorities -- and very little happens. The law isn't equipped to deal with a situation like this -- Tiberius doesn't really do anything harmful -- and Randolph's efforts to get him kicked out of the apartment (or bribe him to leave) also don't work.
       Repeatedly, it's suggested he take the law into his own hands. Randolph even goes so far as to meet with thugs who would beat up Tiberius, for a price. (Typically, the meeting -- arranged by his brother -- winds up with Randolph getting in a physical confrontation with his brother, rather than hiring the thugs.)
       Randolph wonders about the roads not taken:
     "What's the point of a law that fails you ?" my brother asked.
     Today I think Dieter Tiberius might still be alive if I had listened to my little brother back then. Maybe a punch or two would have rattled him, and he would have moved out. I don't know -- I can't know. It's one of those hypothetical questions that sometimes torment me.
       The stalking in the novel cleverly never takes on truly horrific forms; it's the way it pervasively undermines the family's sense of peace and security with its limited, almost understated form that's so creepy. Randolph dwells on it a lot -- and it's further complicated by the fact that while his marriage had been troubled before their troubles with their neighbor began (Randolph taking to eating multi-course gourmet meals in fine restaurants all by himself), he and Rebecca in fact rekindle the old spark once they have this common enemy so close.
       Kurbjuweit also lets float the suggestion -- made at a fancy dinner party (that of course goes all wrong) -- that Tiberius might be a victim of sorts too. In fact, this comes up at the trial, too -- yet it's just another of the aspects of this situation that Randolph finds so maddening: sure, maybe Tiberius had a miserable childhood in which he himself was abused, etc. etc., but that doesn't change the fact that in the present his actions are ruining Randolph's family's life.
       Typically, Kurbjuweit piles on everything he can, with Rebecca going with what Randolph chooses to interpret as not the politically incorrect ...:
     "No way," she said. "If anyone here leaves, it's our Untermensch." She got up and left the room, and a moment later I heard her brushing her teeth.
     I was a little startled by Rebecca's choice of words, though I don't think she meant it in any Nazi sense. She wasn't imputing inferiority on Dieter Tiberius; she meant it architecturally, topographically. The fac that she said he was our Untermensch underscores this meaning: she was specifically referring to him living under us, in the flat below.
       These contortions are typical for Randolph, set in his world view -- despite a world around him that constantly is proving to be anything but that. (Yes, it's all a big commentary on contemporary (German) complacency and willful blindness to real-world problems and real-people issues .....)
       Stay-at-home mom Rebecca also turns out to be a more complicated figure. A somewhat frustrated housewife who gave up her promising career to raise the kids, she also has episodes -- incredible outbursts in which she flings whatever is at hand ("It is only by destroying something that Rebecca can get control of her fury"):
     These fits are not frequent, maybe two or three a year. We have sometimes talked about them. Rebecca doesn't know what gets into her any more than I do, or how she can avoid it. We have agreed that I will have to put up with it.
       Randolph doesn't come right out and claim they're a normal, well-adjusted family at this point, but clearly that's what he wants to believe -- even as he recounts these details that not only suggest some therapy might be called for but that things really aren't okay. (Rebecca's fits do also provide occasion for one of Kurbjuweit's funniest dead-pan lines (though it sounds a bit out of place coming from Randolph, who is no barrel of laughs) -- "We have stopped buying oranges now" -- but also a play a role in the story's resolution, yet another example of Kurbjuweit maybe piling on (way) too much.)
       Finally, Kurbjuweit hammers home the idea of how much family and genetics define us. As throughout, there's very little subtlety here -- hell, Rebecca, a firm believer in this sort of thing, worked on mapping the genome, while Randolph, who wants to believe we determine and build our own fates, is an architect .....
       Randolph's brother asks the question that crops up repeatedly -- indeed, that could be seen as the book's thesis:
How old will you be before you realize that there's no escaping your roots ?
       Randolph was estranged from his father, and he can't believe that they're actually as similar as they obviously are: he doesn't want to be his father, but it looks like he can't escape it. But at least he doesn't start hoarding guns .....
       Kurbjuweit packs so much into, and on, Fear that the short novel teeters under the strain of it all. With a narrator who readers quickly realize isn't entirely reliable -- he seems to be trying to be sincere, but rationalizes a whole lot (including quite a few things that even he must see can't be quite right) -- the story is an interesting one to follow, even if it feels -- perhaps appropriately, given its architect narrator ? -- forcefully formally structured. But too much of it tries too hard to be provocative, relentlessly trying to prod and challenge the reader's assumptions of our behavior in society.
       Schooled in Yasmina Reza's The God of Carnage and (blurb-providing) Herman Koch's The Dinner, Fear lays it on more than a bit too thick and richly, but Kurbjuweit is smooth and competent enough a writer, and creative enough with his (overfill of) ideas -- and a fine variety of truly engaging detail and episodes -- to hold the reader's interest.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 October 2017

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Fear: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German author Dirk Kurbjuweit was born in 1962.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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