‘She hears a heartbeat and recognizes what every woman in the world knows: what happens to one of us, happens to all of us.’
A family gathers for supper and it couldn’t be more normal:everyone has had a long day, the apartment is in a mess, the children are whiny and noisy. In the blink of an eye and with devastating finality, the family’s entire life is brought crashing down by a single question. ‘Don’t we have any salt?’ asks Johannes. His query is addressed to nobody in particular and certainly not aimed at his wife. A very simple, normal question. Helene then gets up and goes to the balcony. Without saying anything, she throws herself off and falls many floors to her death. Her husband and three children are left behind, stunned and in a state of shock. Over the following weeks, it becomes painfully clear how much Helene is missed. She was the centre of the family, and held it together with her acts of care, love and reassurance. How can life go on with these feelings of guilt, grief — and also incomprehension?
Sarah, Helene’s best friend, is also troubled by nagging questions. Why couldn’t she see what was really going on with her friend? She wants to help and at least be there for Helene’s family now, even if she seems to have failed as a friend. Filling the domestic hole left by Helene, Sarah becomes a pillar of support for the severely strained Johannes, keeps the household running, and takes care of the children. It’s supposed to be a stopgap until everyone is back on their feet again. But weeks go by, and then months. Sarah is ever more relied upon and her own life, job and relationship increasingly take a back seat. She often envied her friend for her family life, and just as often felt sorry for her whenever Helene seemed overwhelmed by her duties as a mother. Now she has lost her own autonomy and is caught up in a whirlpool of self-sacrifice. Alongside pity and guilt, another feeling swiftly and inexorably makes its way to the surface: anger. Raging anger at Helene, whose actions left behind so many damaged people. Anger at the children, who spurn her solicitude. Anger at her boyfriend Leon, who increasingly seems to be distancing himself from her. But above all, anger at Johannes, who too readily accepts her help, becomes reliant on her, and keeps casually pushing Sarah into the caring role once occupied by her dead friend.
However, Sarah’s anger is nothing compared to that felt by Lola, Helene’s eldest daughter. Lola’s all-encompassing resentment is directed at the patriarchy itself, which she sees as propped up not only by men, but also by women like Helene and Sarah. She blames the system and its compliant supporters for her mother’s constant stress and death, and for her own loneliness too. Lola resolves to extricate herself from this social construct, from its expectations and labels, and at the same time declares war on the all-powerful forces of patriarchy.
Mareike Fallwickl’s protagonist is driven to her almost incomprehensible death not by a big and shocking event, but by normal everyday life. Emotional stress, loneliness, social expectations and conditioning all add up to a crushing weight, as does the feeling of being constantly stretched to the limit, to which many mothers can relate all too well. In her fourth novel, the Hallein-born author represents the wide spectrum of modern womanhood with unsettling radical energy: from motherhood to deliberate childlessness, from the destructive insistence on conforming to traditional roles and expectations through to the gender care gap — and, waiting in the wings, a young generation that is ready to throw all these supposed certainties overboard.
Translation: Sebastian Smallshaw