As with The Kindly Ones, Julia Franck’s The Blind Side of the Heart explores the German experience of war during the twentieth century. Here, however, the focus is on the civilian population, and women in particular. Franck also takes a longer view, beginning with the First World War and moving through the inter-war years to beyond the Second.
The Prologue is really an epilogue, set after the Second World War has ended, as Peter and his mother seek to escape from a Russian occupied sector of Germany. The threat faced by women from men, a reoccurring theme of the novel, is already in evidence as Peter returns home to his apartment to find two soldiers emerging:
“They were clapping each other on the back in high good humour.”
A third soldier is sitting naked on the floor sobbing. Our disassociation from his mother, Helene’s, experience at this point is not simply the use of a child’s viewpoint to create irony. It is clear that Helene herself is distant from her own life. Her coldness towards Peter is shown by her refusal to take his hand:
“He reached for her hand. She shook his off and went ahead of him.”
“Mother, he repeated, taking her hand again…Next moment the train jerked… and his mother held tight with one hand to the baggage rack and with the other to the door frame for the rest of the journey, while Peter clung to her coat without her noticing or being able to prevent him.”
However, this does not prepare us for her actions when she leaves Peter waiting for her at a station and does not return. The rest of the novel is, to some extent, an attempt to explain this.
Helene’s childhood, we discover, was not an easy one. Her Jewish mother largely ignored her, and never recovered from her father’s decision to fight in the First World War. When he returns, severely wounded, she refuses to even see him, and it is Helene and her older sister Martha, who nurse him until he dies. When they get the chance to move to Berlin and live with a rich aunt they take it, abandoning their mother to only the occasional mention thereafter. Franck portrays Berlin as a place of frantic hedonism in the 1920s and early 30s. Martha becomes addicted to morphine and pursues a lesbian affair with a married woman whom she has followed to the city. Helene, nine years younger and more serious, doesn’t fit in. Eventually she meets a young man, Carl, who falls in love with her, but he dies before they can marry and at this point she seems to close down emotionally:
“Helene sat down again and went on not waiting for anything. Days passed.”
Her marriage to Wilhelm is something she drifts into, partly influence by his provision of papers proving she is pure German. When he discovers she is not a virgin, however, his attitude towards her changes completely, and believably, and he is soon estranged for her, building roads for the new Nazi regime.
The novel has many excellent scenes, for example when Helene goes to visit Carl’s parents after his death, or the night of her marriage to Wilhelm. Its central irony is the similarities between Helene and her mother. Where her mother loses her husband to war, Helen’s loses the man she loves to an accident: in both instances it is their sense of powerlessness that distresses them. Her mother’s waiting for her husband’s return is echoed in the fact that Helene is waiting for Carl on the day he dies. Both are also affected by their Jewishness: Helene because she is threatened by Wilhelm, her mother because she is regarded as an eccentric in her village. Finally, both reject their children.
The novel’s final scenes are also ironic. When Helene reappears year later to visit Peter, he hides in the barn and refuses to see her. This echoes an earlier scene when they are mushroom picking and Helen hides from her son:
“The boy sat down and wept…. If she came out of the bushes now, just a few metres away, he would know she had been watching him and had hidden on purpose.”
In both cases, however, it is Helene who seems ultimately powerless, and it is her powerlessness that is central to the novel. Her only affirmative actions are her rejection of her mother and then her son. The powerlessness is sometimes sexual:
“He thrust his prick into her, regular thrust after regular thrust, like a hammer driving a nail into the wall.”
More often, however, it is related to her inability to control her own fate.
The Blind Side of the Heart probably tries to do too much, particularly in dealing with so many years of German history. Characters also have a tendency to fade away: the mother, Martha, and even Helene herself (we never find out where she goes when she leaves Peter or why she comes back). Having said that, it contains many memorable scenes and tackles the issues of those years from a new and interesting angle.