Book review: The Girl Who Wasn’t There

SEBASTIAN von Eschburg is the lonely offspring of a frosty marriage. 

Ferdinand Von Schirach

Little Brown, €13.50;

ebook, €7.99

Allowed to eat with his parents only from his eighth birthday onwards, he has been raised in a decaying lake house owned for generations by an aristocratic family, whose moneyed, vaguely bohemian, but mirthless lifestyle comes to a shuddering halt when his father commits suicide.

But Sebastian isn’t just a solitary, only child, he’s a different one — he sees the world through a spectrum of colours, he thinks in images not speech. 

His father’s skin he sees as “pale greenish blue”; his nanny’s hands as “cyan and amber”; his own hair as “violet with a touch of ochre”.

He isn’t what you might describe as a healthy participator in the community.

Fast forward several years and Sebastian has become an arty photographer who has drifted from working on fashion shoots to creating the type of art installations that are swooned over by the demi-monde. 

That Sebastian’s art — influenced by his colour associations — consists of digitally manipulated scenes of sexual violence, identity and pornography is neither here nor there. 

He is, to all intents and purposes, a clinical filter for the kind of dysfunction that passes for normality.

Into Sebastian’s fragmented world (which is so vague the word ‘nebulous’ could have been invented for it) arrive the police. 

An anonymous voice on the phone directs the authorities to Sebastian’s apartment, where scenes of murder and mayhem are found — but no body. He is nonetheless accused of the murder of a teenage girl. 

Cue the arrival of Konrad Biegler, a veteran defence lawyer, to sift through the evidence (what there is of it), and to do his best to clear von Eschburg of a crime that could put a halt to his freedom and ruin his career. Cue, also, the novel shifting into a different gear altogether.

Following the success of Bernard Schlink’s The Reader, UK and US publishers started to look to Germany for more stories. Munich defence lawyer Ferdinand von Schirach provided one such outlet — albeit with a tantalising backstory. 

The author of previous crime books (Crime and Guilt, The Collini Case) that tread a thin line between truth and reality, guilt and innocence, von Schirach is the grandson of Baldur von Schirach, the one-time head of the Hitler Youth movement. Therein, perhaps, lays Ferdinand von Schirach’s narrative modus operandi of moral ambiguity.

Part crime procedure, part courtroom drama, there are obvious shifts from one to the other, but both are adroitly overseen once Konrad Biegler makes an appearance. 

A laconic presence, he is the opposite to Sebastian’s artistic antihero, providing as much grave common sense as humour. 

You could safely say that the author has such an understanding of defence lawyers in real life that there is more to believe here than with the character of Sebastian, who really isn’t someone you’d want to spend a lot of time with.

This said, there is something of a disconnect between the characters and the writing. 

Although translated with what seems like precision by Anthea Bell, there’s no getting away from the flat, sometimes banal, severity of the prose — it may be easy to admire but it’s impossible to linger over. 

Too often the whiff of pretentiousness is intolerable. The conclusion, also, isn’t really as ingenious as some people would like us to believe, and so — good aspects of the book notwithstanding — you’re left wondering what all the fuss is about.


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