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‘Nobody was exactly how you wanted them to be’ [book review]

A review of Love in Five Acts by Daniela Krien, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

The title of Daniela Krien’s latest novel to appear in English is, in the German original, Die Liebe im Ernstfall. While a direct interpretation (Love in Case of Emergency) has indeed been chosen for the US edition of Jamie Bulloch’s translation, this is one of the rare cases in which I find the new UK English title – Love in Five Acts – to be better than the original. Because the novel is exactly that: an exploration of love, in all its many forms, presented in five stories that read much like the acts of a play. Separate yet intrinsically linked, and narrated with such a sense of place and character that at the end of each one it is almost possible to see the curtain falling on the actors.

Cover image Love in Five Acts

It’s been a while since I found myself so totally absorbed in a novel as I was in Love in Five Acts, which is testament not only to Daniela Krien’s brilliantly realist storytelling, but also to Jamie Bulloch’s vivid translation. Though none of the five sections is particularly long, each concentrates on a different character with such depth and nuance – despite the rather spartan prose style – that I felt by the end as though I knew each woman intimately. And this in turn gives rise to the only disappointment I felt in the novel, which was that most of its sections ended too abruptly, before I was ready to leave them (in several cases it really is as though the lights in the auditorium have suddenly been switched off). In a sense, it might have been better to approach it as a collection of five short stories, allowing time to digest each one fully before moving on to the next.

This kind of reading might also do away with any potential confusion caused by the fact that in terms of chronology, Krien likes to jump around unannounced. Although this doesn’t really disturb the narrative flow, a small amount of detective work is required on the part of the reader – characters have the habit of reappearing in one another’s stories, but often years before or after the events that take place in their own. It can sometimes take a moment to place them in the context of what we know about their lives, but the pleasure of recognition each time feels as though Krien has deliberately placed a series of small surprises for her readers, a reward for having paid attention and become absorbed in her characters’ world.

The world in question is Leipzig, though the setting is kept general enough that it could be almost any city in Europe. Krien is skilled in focusing on the smaller details – the layout of streets and houses, the colours of trees, the atmosphere of a bar – and a few recurring motifs, such as the smell of ramsons (wild garlic) or the seasonal migration of swifts, but while these build a vivid picture of her characters’ immediate surroundings, they are in no way specific to Leipzig and so offer the reader a form of familiarity. No wild flights of fancy are necessary to dive fully into the novel, whose main concern after all is with relationships, the twists and turns of a life, and how we continually reinvent – or rediscover – ourselves.

As the cover suggests, the five women in Love in Five Acts are all poised on the edge of something. Aged mainly in their thirties and forties – though we do encounter some, like Brida, as a younger woman – their lives have turned out quite differently to how they expected. Relationships have developed and fallen apart, children have been born and lost, and the established dynamics between parents and children, sisters or best friends have often shifted dramatically. A sense of helplessness reigns in many of the characters’ lives – Paula, for example, with whom the book opens, seems to have been a victim of circumstance in both her failed marriage and the tragic death of her child – while others fight with a grim determination to carve out a life at least approximating the one they once imagined. Some sections focus on a period of only a few years, others take a longer view, but each narrates some kind of turning point: the moment at which each character comes to the sobering realisation that, including themselves, ‘nobody was exactly how you wanted them to be’.

It is in many ways a poignant message, yet, just like its characters, Love in Five Acts is overwhelmingly strong. It offers a clear-sighted perspective of modern society and the roles women play (or are expected to play) within it. Themes such as infidelity, bereavement, motherhood and abortion are all tackled with sensitivity and an unwavering realism: Krien is never melodramatic, but nor does she avoid these topics, which are all threads in the fabric of contemporary society. While each woman is vastly different in character and accordingly experiences life in a distinctive way, they are bound by a common struggle to make sense of their lives, which goes beyond individual circumstance and delves into what it is to be human. From an apparently straightforward idea, Daniela Krien has created a many-layered and rewarding novel.

A structure like this – five interconnected lives – is certainly nothing new in literature, yet again the author offers her readers a pleasant surprise by varying the degrees of separation between her characters. As friends, sisters and rival lovers (rather than, say, merely a group of friends) we are treated to a refreshing take on how our lives intersect with others’, even when we may not recognise the overlap. Though Krien’s sparing, wry prose has been compared to that of Sally Rooney, the overall emotional effect of the novel reminded me very much of Bernardine Evaristo and the final words of Girl, Woman, Other: ‘this is about being together’.

Love in Five Acts takes five lives and binds them together, as well as tying them to the reader’s. Meticulously crafted and superbly translated, it is a novel that is almost effortlessly compelling, offering a message of solidarity and allowing its readers to find parts of themselves within it. While the ending might leave us hanging, it is drenched in hope – a winning formula that can only leave us looking forward to more writing by Daniela Krien.

Love in Five Acts by Daniela Krien, translated by Jamie Bulloch, is published today in the UK by MacLehose Press and available in digital and hardback. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.

Blog blast Love in Five Acts

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