It started with an eight-year-old boy left at the train station by his mother, as the Germans flee the Red Army approaching Szczecin/Stettin in 1945.
We need to go back more than twenty years to find out how it came to this, and what happened next. Why did she do it?
A Jewish family in the 1920s and 1930s, a blonde woman who can never breathe a word of where she came from, a mother too unstable to love, her daughter becoming a mother far removed from her child and her own self.
Knowing the big story, it looks like they had a lot of luck, but to survive, their personal history – and family ties – have to utterly disappear.
This is the story of a woman who was in some ways freer than ever before, but the race and mental ‘health’ laws and a man who believed in them make her feel even more trapped.
It turns out that the story which opens Julia Franck‘s novel was her father’s own story. He was that little boy. And she wrote the novel to try to understand how his mother could leave him.
Franck’s work has been translated into 35 languages. Her English translator, Anthea Bell, has also translated Sebald, Zweig, Funke and – Asterix. She had a particular challenge with the title of this novel.
Die Mittagsfrau won the German Book Prize in 2007 and the UK English translation, The Blind Side of the Heart was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 3 years later. In the US, it is called The Blindness of the Heart. The English titles makes sense with the protagonist’s story as a lover, daughter and mother. But the original German is from a local legend with countless regional variations: Lady Midday would come to the fields, wielding a sickle over the workers’ heads. The only way to stop her curse was to keep telling her a story for the whole hour between noon and one o’clock.
I will definitely be reading more of Julia Franck’s ‘stories to stop the curse’ very soon: Rücken an Rücken (2011, translated by Bell as Back to Back, 2013) is a natural follow up. It looks equally emotionally intense, dark and brilliant – and tells the story of two children growing up in East Berlin.