What makes this book remarkable is the restraint with which Kempowski writes in that he leaves the emotion for the reader to fill in on his own. This opens the story to multitudes of interpretation as perceptions of the same event can result in different points of view. Similar what could be called The Isherwood I Am A Camera style (although Isherwood never used that phrase and apparently became annoyed when asked about it) facts are given, with, in this case, almost no embellishment. Kempowski exercises this technique to perfection. He shows great respect to the reader by trusting him/her to interpret mere facts, albeit through his own lens.
Max Frisch expressed this technique (though not this book) very well in an interview when he said, “There are other ways to show them—body language, or silence—that can be very strong. And maybe, too, one has a distrust of words; one fears that they won’t be interpreted correctly. It’s very difficult to describe a feeling and not to lie a little bit, to put it on a higher level or to blind yourself. So I don’t trust myself to describe my feelings, but I like to show them by a piece of art. And as a reader I’m the same, I don’t like it if the author tells me what I have to feel. He has to urge the reader to get a feeling of shame or of hope. So there’s a lot of feeling, there’s a lot of emotion, but . . . not expressed in words.”
Perhaps the reason Kempowski exercised such restraint is that it meant too much to him. According to Kempowski, “Peter,’ obviously, is me – a second, a multiple self-portrait. Without that, I could not have written the book.”
A priggish, button-up sort is set upon by an unknown, or almost unknown, assailant and is buried alive. Flash forward to meet Paul Jenkins, a friendly, charming widower. After a satisfying career, Paul decides to retire and move back in with his sister by the English seaside. Upon his arrival, the pragmatic Paul is surprised to find that his sister, following the death of their parents, has developed an interest in spiritualism. She is not only attending seances, she invites the medium to their home.
While Julia is fascinated by the messages the medium relays from their mother, Paul dismisses them as vague, mumbo-jumble tripe uttered by a scam artist. Julia is first offended by Paul, but then agrees with him after an urgent warning from the medium not to let Paul move in with her. Defensive of her brother, Julia allows him to move in with her. Paul is charmed by his new life by the sea where he grew up, falling right back in with his old high school friends (while being appalled at how age has ravaged them) and rekindling a romance with his first love, Angela, who’s heart he broke years ago.
Paul enlists his son, Gary, to do construction work on their home. One night while Julia is vacationing in Greece, Paul and Gary are awoken from one of their mother-of-all hangovers (yes, there are several in the book, all at terribly inconvenient times as hangovers are wont to be) by noises downstairs. Father and son surprise a young burglar who rushes Paul. Paul, armed with a hammer, swings, and the curly blond youth is out for the count. Truly out for the count. Gary urges Paul to call the police, but Paul is wary of not being believed and prevails on his son to assist him in burying the dead lad under the porch they are building. Gary is shocked at the way his kind and loving father so coolly decides upon this course of action, out of keeping with the image of the father he always had. However, father knows best, and Gary assists in disposing of the body.
All is safe now. Or is it? The kid was acting alone, wasn’t he? And the dead are silent, aren’t they?
This fast-paced novel flies by in one surprising turn after the next where nothing is what it seems. Author Richard Gardner knocks over the reader’s assumptions like so many dominoes.