Wednesday, August 15, 2018

This House is Mine

This House Is Mine / Dorte Hansen; translated from the German by Anne-Marie Stokes
New York :, St. Martin's Press,, 2016
325 p.

Hildegard von Kamcke arrives at the Altland house of Ida Eckhoff alongside her 5 year old daughter Vera, displaced from East Prussia in 1945. They are taken in, begrudgingly, and given a small room and sparse food in return for work on the farm.

Ida's coldness doesn't drive Hildegard away; rather as she adjusts, she becomes more and more attached to this house. After Ida's son Karl returns from WWII a broken man, Hildegard ends up marrying him, and the house indeed then becomes her own.  

The book follows Hildegard and Vera as they make a home in this setting; but only Vera sticks. Hildegard finds a better offer from a rich man with a villa, and leaves with him - but without Vera, who is then cared for by her stepfather Karl. Vera's never fully accepted by the neighbourhood, always with a taint of 'outsider' despite her commitment to this place, despite the fact that she grew up there. She's too different, too independent. 

But when Karl, old and ill with PTSD, needs her, Vera cares for him in the old rambling house that is falling down around them. But into the picture comes her niece Anne and her son Leo, looking for refuge when Anne's relationship fails. They move to the country because of course rural life is purer and more healing, and develop a new relationship with the cold and emotionally distant Vera. Family heals all wounds! No, seriously, while it does sound a bit like a Hallmark movie, there is more darkness and toughness in this one. Hansen notes, "Vera Eckhoff didn’t know much about her niece, but she knew a refugee when she saw one."

I actually enjoyed the sense of hope and healing that Hansen allowed to arise in the relationship between these two women. While I can be a cynical reader at times, I appreciated that this book was not fully despairing despite its beginnings in war, suicide, trauma, and family dissolution. The power of place and belonging comes through here; while families can break apart, they can also reform themselves into something new. And the very specific place of the house was a powerful central theme, and vital to the creation of belonging. The house had a motto carved on its front: 

“This hoose is mine ain and yet no mine ain, he that follows will caw it his.”

The only constant is change, and this book illuminates that perfectly. The theme of refugees and identities in Germany right now is pretty topical, and Hansen explores the long history of such movement within Germany to give another perspective on alienation and belonging. This was a bestseller in Germany, and its readability, strong story, and additional wry humour might explain why. Recommended. 

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