My immediate impression of Ferdinand von Schirach’s book was that it reminded me very much of Albert Camus’ ‘L’Étranger‘. Mainly, I think because the central character, Sebastian von Eschburg, seems to epitomise existentialist concepts. Also, although I read the book in English it was written in German; however good a translation is, somehow translated work has a certain timbre to it.
Sebastian has had a difficult childhood, which ended abruptly when his father committed suicide. As an adult he seems to be on the outside of life, looking in. He doesn’t seem to engage fully with others and his reactions are not what one would normally expect (hence the Meursault connection). It is not surprising then, that Sebastian’s career as a photographer develops into that of a more sophisticated artist, famous for his installations exploring themes of pornography and voyeurism. The first part of the novel builds a picture of von Eschburg.
The second part introduces one of the most superb fictional lawyers I have ever come across. I know we have been all over Atticus of late, but Konrad Biegler is grouchy, sardonic, intuitive and brilliant at his job. A wonderfully imagined character, he is appointed by Sebastian to defend him against a series allegation. I am not a big fan of courtroom dramas but the account of the case against von Eschburg, its presentation and the final verdict, had me hooked.
Throughout the novel (which is short, by the way, easily read in one sitting), the author’s use of language is precise and somehow sparse, with no flowery prose, but nevertheless totally fitting for the examination of themes such as truth, reality, evidence and art.
Personally, I found ‘The Girl Who Wasn’t There‘ fascinating. But it also felt like a book to be studied, discussed and probed, rather than just read for the fun of it: I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned up in an ‘A’ level German syllabus! You will either love this book, or think it is pseudo-philosophical claptrap. Either way, you really do need to read it so you can make up your mind, and I think as a Book Group choice it may divide the readership!
Thank you to NetGalley for my copy of the book.