'The Girl Who Wasn't There', Ferdinand von Schirach
When a gifted but socially-challenged young artist’s attempts to define beauty run up against a grizzled old lawyer’s attempts to define truth, something has to give. Thankfully, that something is neither the pace nor the dry wit underpinning Ferdinand von Schirach’s latest blockbuster.
To use the word 'blockbuster' for a novel by an author who remains relatively unknown in the English-speaking world is perhaps open to challenge, but given that Schirach is one of German's most successful writers, and had already had his work translated into thirty-five different languages, only serves to backstop the fact that this, his fourth novel, has already sold more than 150,000 hardback copies in Germany alone.
Balancing the glitzy world of a modern, internationally acclaimed photographer with that of his aristocratic parents and grandparents in a small town mid-way between Munich and Salzberg, then introducing an irascible, curmudgeonly, yet ultimately loveable lawyer (something of a German Rumpole, if such a thing were even possible), it is tempting to think that Schirach has drawn on a good deal of his own experience to write ‘The Girl Who Wasn’t There’. A scion of a noble, Munich-based family, and educated at one of German’s most prestigious Jesuit-run boarding schools, just as his young protagonist is, Schirach is recognised as one of the Bundesrepublik’s leading lawyers, and has, like Biegler (his fictional barrister) made a name for himself by representing a string of high profile clients over recent years.
‘The Girl Who Wasn’t There’ takes the reader from 1950s Germany and Austria, to modern-day Paris and Rome, in a search for definitions, for truth, and for understanding. Very much a literary thriller, it remains a relatively short work, coming in at just over two-hundred pages, and is paced in such a way that a conscientious reader could finish it in a single sitting over the course of a leisurely afternoon. The translation from the German, by Anthea Bell, delivers crisp prose while retaining the undertone of wry humour for which Shirach’s previous novels - ‘Crime’ (2009), ‘Guilt’ (2010), and ‘The Collini Case’ (2011) - were noted, and which kept them in Der Spiegel’s bestseller lists for months on each occasion. A couple of short but quite graphic sex scenes merit an age warning, but otherwise there is little to detract from, and much to recommend this enjoyable, thought-provoking, and occasionally amusing read.
'The Girl Who Wasn't There' by Ferdinand von Schirach will be published in trade paperback by Little & Brown on 13 January 2015.