The cold grip of fear

22 July 2017

9:00 AM

22 July 2017

9:00 AM

A screenwriter sits in a lovely rented house somewhere up an Alp in early December. The air is clear, the views stunning, the isolation splendid. He rented the home through Airbnb — surprisingly cheaply, as it happens. He has come to this place for a family holiday with his wife Susanna and their four-year-old, Esther, but also to get some peace and quiet in which to concentrate on his current job. His last movie, Besties, was a smash hit, and now the producer wants a screenplay for Besties 2, and the sooner the better. And as we read through his notebook, in which he’s hoping the screenplay will take shape, the whole set-up seems quite promising, really.

True, his initial ideas for the movie aren’t quite as brilliantly inspired as he’d hoped, but they’ll do for now. And true, his relationship with Susanna — a beautiful actress somewhat out of his league — is under a bit of strain for reasons we’ll discover; but it’ll probably work itself out. And yes, true, there’s something odd about the house, but oh, I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about…

That’s where he’s wrong, of course: there most definitely is something to worry about. The temporarily disappearing reflections, for starters. That thing with the baby monitor. The woman from the photo in the laundry room. The unexplained messages. The whole business with the right angles. (Yes, this book manages to make the basic rules of geometry really scary.) The working notebook is soon overtaken not only by domestic matters but also a sense of menacing claustrophobia, even in these vast open spaces, as the characters — and readers — teeter on the edge of an inexplicable abyss. And it gets worse and worse, as a mind seems to lose its grip, and a perfectly normal, logical setting slips chillingly out of control.

Our novelist, however, is in total control. Daniel Kehlmann first made his name in the Anglosphere a decade ago with Measuring the World, a large-scale bestselling historical novel about two early 19th-century German scientists. Here he and his translator Ross Benjamin squeeze an enormous amount of readerly anxiety out of very few carefully placed words (the entire book is only 110 tiny pages long). One interruption reads simply, ‘Something strange just happened.’ He avoids explaining too much, so the unnamed narrator’s doubt is our doubt, and we — like him — are never quite sure of where we stand. Which parts of this constantly self-undermining story do we believe?

Using some neat formal trickery and cleverly suggestive atmosphere, this is a story about a marriage in trouble, and about a seemingly impossible desire to protect a young child from threatening reality, but also about something else, something unavoidable and powerful but terrifyingly vague (and maddeningly hard to describe usefully in a review). At first glance there may not seem much to this little book, but it has a funny way with dimensions — its effects are amplified, and they linger.

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