The Book of Words – Jenny Erpenbeck

I slide my hands across the white letters on the fence boards, there’s a spotlight shining on them, and my father reads aloud: Silence is health.

The girl has a mother and a father, a wet nurse and a friend. She knows other people, too, obviously. Her grandmother, the gardener, her piano teacher. She is not allowed to go outside alone and she can hear cars backfiring, or are those gunshots?

Ostensibly set South America, probably during Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War” between 1974 and 1983), The Book of Words follows the interior life of an unnamed girl. Her consciousness awakes gradually and her thoughts become more complex making it apparent that the book is built around the stories about the world that adults tell to children.

The Book of Words is a short book light on plot to put into a synopsis, particularly if one wants to avoid revealing the occupation of the girl’s father. Instead, there are the themes. First, the relationship between a child and the adults who answer her questions and teach her about the world. These relationships form the cornerstone of the book because it shapes how the girl interacts with people such her father’s friend the doctor who treats her when she has a fever and the woman she witnesses being dragged onto a bus by two men. She is shielded from the horrors of living under a repressive regime, until she is isn’t.

In short, The Book of Words is a powerful novella with a brilliant and subtle character development over the course of its 90 pages. Erpenbeck’s decision to anonymize the girl at the heart of the story universalizes it and places the emphasis on the visual imagery of the stories she is told, such as the saint who died crossing the desert and the snow-capped mountains that she has never seen. She lives in the world of the stories that she has been told, which she passes on to her friend who has stories of her own. The Book of Words floats through a dreamlike state before reaching a gutting a conclusion.

This is the third of Jenny Erpenbeck’s books I have read (all in translation, but hers are high on my list of books I’d like to try in German). I loved The End of Days, but was unmoved by the story collection The Old Child. In my opinion her stories felt underdeveloped, but, then, I often have this reaction to short stories. I had no such problem here. The Book of Words reaffirmed my love of Erpenbeck’s prose and I am looking forward to reading more.

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I am still running behind on writing about books I’ve read, having finished and developed opinions about Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer and Dan Simmons’ Ilium. I am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.