Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Wednesday, March 25, 2020: Maximum Shelf: Dear Child

Flatiron Books: Dear Child by Romy Hausmann

Flatiron Books: Dear Child by Romy Hausmann

Flatiron Books: Dear Child by Romy Hausmann

Flatiron Books: Dear Child by Romy Hausmann

Dear Child

by Romy Hausmann

German author Romy Hausmann's chilling English-language debut, Dear Child, begins where other abduction thrillers end: with the abductees having escaped. But they are far from being free, and Hausmann keeps readers captive until the last sentence.

When Lena Beck was a 23-year-old student, she went missing in Munich after attending a party. That was 13 years ago. In the present, near the Czech border, in Cham, a woman runs out of the woods one night and is hit by a car. She has no ID or personal effects on her, but right behind her is an eerily calm 13-year-old girl. When paramedics arrive, the girl tells them her name is Hannah and her mother is Lena. Hannah even knows her mom's blood type.

While waiting for Lena to undergo surgery at the hospital, Hannah is looked after by Sister Ruth, who attempts to retrieve emergency contact info from Hannah. What's her father's name? Family surname? Phone number? Address? Where was Lena running from?

Hannah whispers, "Nobody must find us."

When Sister Ruth asks her to elaborate, Hannah says, "[Mama] wanted to kill Papa by accident," and tells her that Hannah's younger brother, Jonathan, is back at their cabin in the woods cleaning stains from the carpet. He was scared of the noise. What noise? "What it sounds like when you bash someone's head with something. Bam!"

Certain something is very wrong, Sister Ruth notifies the authorities, who eventually call Lena Beck's parents, Matthias and Karin. After 4,825 days, they cannot believe the police have found Lena, injured but alive.

Matthias and Karin race to Cham in the night, and encounter a crushing surprise at the hospital. But they also catch sight of Hannah, who's the spitting image of Lena as a teen. The girl is being remanded to a childhood trauma center and, apparently, Matthias and Karin also have a grandson, who's been found at the cabin--along with the body of a man with his face bashed in. The kidnapper is dead, and the nightmare is over for his victims. Or is it?

Comparisons to Emma Donoghue's Room are perhaps inevitable, but by starting the novel with the abductees' escape, Hausmann keeps readers wondering where the story goes from there, as it travels down mysterious and surprising paths. Chapters alternate between the points of view of Matthias and the former captives, with flashbacks providing glimpses of what happened inside the cabin. Scenes of cruelty are horrifying but not graphic; most are narrated by Hannah, who doesn't fully understand the significance of the adults' actions.

Hannah's voice is the most striking, and Hausmann captures it perfectly. Born in captivity, the girl is both highly intelligent and achingly innocent, her view of the world entirely shaped by a cruel man. Her impeccable politeness has a sinister effect, making readers question what's beneath the unruffled patina. She draws disturbing pictures, in art therapy and to pass the time, observing that she needs the crayon in carmine red to illustrate fresh blood, that claret's "fine for old blood, and for really old blood the brown crayon is best." Her matter-of-fact revelations raise fresh questions in a case thought to be closed.

And Hannah has no patience for people without manners. When her little brother becomes catatonic after he's given pills at the children's psychiatric center, Hannah thinks, "I don't like his stupid eyes" and "it's making it harder for me to love him." After all, he must say hello when he sees her and not hit his head on the table while eating. She starts distancing herself from Jonathan, which makes his plight even more heartbreaking. At least inside the cabin, the boy felt loved by his sister and mother.

In contrast to the children's reactions, Matthias is consumed by rage. Rage at the fact that he couldn't prevent Lena's abduction, that he still doesn't know all the horrors she suffered at the cabin, that he now might have no control over his granddaughter's care. He's faced with questions from his wife and from Hannah's doctors: How can he provide a "normal" life for someone who feels safest locked up in a cabin? The whole ordeal hurls Matthias toward a startling self-reckoning, with Hausmann showing how someone driven by love might inflict as much damage as someone who sets out to harm.

The author also explores the notions of imprisonment and freedom, how neither is tied to four walls and physical space. After moving back to her own place, the woman who fought and escaped from her abductor realizes she's still a prisoner. She keeps her doors locked and shuns company, allowing only her former girlfriend to visit. Her fears, Matthias's savior complex and Hannah's desire to return to the only home she knew collide in a white-knuckle climax. And just when readers think it's okay to exhale, the final note of hope--of one woman's determination to find beauty beyond boundaries--will take their breath away. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

Flatiron Books, $26.99, hardcover, 352p., 9781250768537, October 6, 2020

Flatiron Books: Dear Child by Romy Hausmann

Romy Hausmann: No Boundaries or Limits

(photo: Astrid Eckert)

Romy Hausmann was born in East Germany, and at 24 became managing editor of a Munich television production company. She has published several novels in Germany but Dear Child, which Flatiron will publish October 6, 2020, is the first to be translated into English. It's also Hausmann's first thriller, depicting what happens after longtime victims of abduction manage to escape from captivity. Hausmann lives with her family in the woods near Stuttgart.

You've published before, but this is your first thriller. What inspired the switch to this genre?

For many years, I'd not read thrillers myself, almost only literary fiction. Most of my own memory of the genre goes back to holidays in Italy as a teen in the 1990s, when I'd run out of my own reading and I would pick up my mother's books; she used to read rather light crime fiction and thrillers. The language was often too flat for me and the psychology felt neglected. All in all, I found thrillers completely uninteresting.

Until many years later, when I happened to read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Is that what thrillers could be like these days? That language, that psychological depth, that complexity. I was stunned by my enthusiasm and immediately thought, I want to write something like that!

Dear Child explores the meaning of freedom, how sometimes imprisonment doesn't require four walls or captivity. You grew up in East Germany. What did freedom mean to you then? Where did you find it and how did you experience it?

I was a child at the time and our living conditions were normal for me because I had no means of comparison. My parents were also born into this system, and we basically only knew what "freedom" could look like from TV (there were only two state channels in the GDR at the time; we watched Western TV with a specially designed antenna).

I remember there had always been discussions at home about escaping to the West, that that was my parents' life mission: to make and realize the ultimate escape plan. And I also knew I couldn't tell anyone about it because otherwise the Stasi would have come and taken my parents away.

Nevertheless, I had a good childhood, and as a child it's about other things that make you feel free. Hanging out with friends, climbing trees. I think I only realized later how bad [living in the GDR] must have been for the adults, and how much it had shaped me that at home everything was about this one topic. Now that I've grown up, "freedom" is still my greatest asset. I hate setting limits on myself, or having them set by others.

When the Berlin Wall came down, how did the meaning of freedom change for you?

It used to be about a geographical boundary, freedom of expression and the ability to buy what you wanted, go on vacation to wherever you wanted, learn the profession you wanted to work in. After the fall of the wall, all of that was there and available. Today, I'm focused on stretching the personal boundaries I have in my head. To do things even if they scare me or I might fail, always bearing in mind I have only this one life.

Another theme in Dear Child is that well-intentioned people and those who willfully cause harm are perhaps not too different from one another. It's an uncomfortable thought but the story shows how that can be true.

Life is not black and white, just as we humans aren't either. We all live in our own "gray." Imagine that you are a good person, but someone does something bad to your child. I bet you could become a monster in those circumstances--at least I would.

This is what Dear Child is about. It's not about a bad person who is crazy or degenerated from birth and does cruel things purely for his own fun. This is about normal people who've had their psyche scratched by what has happened to them in their life, and who are now doing what they think is right, even if they objectively cross social and moral boundaries. But they don't notice that anymore; they are trapped in themselves. I think that is also what makes Dear Child so uncomfortable--we suspect that under certain circumstances, we too could mutate into these monsters.

You live in a remote house in the woods. Part of the book is set in the woods. How much of your own surroundings is reflected in the story?

A lot! I am often out in the woods and go for walks. These huts are a common sight. Of course, they are more likely to be used by forest farmers to lock away their equipment. But theoretically, one or more people could be held there and no one would get suspicious.

The scenes dealing with the treatment of children in the psychiatric facility seem very realistic. How much research did you do to achieve this?

Psychology is my hobby. Of course I had to do some research, but I didn't see it as work, and it mainly satisfied my own fundamental interest. Especially when writing from Hannah's perspective, I benefited from the fact that I am--or at least I think I am--a very empathetic person. I just imagined what it would be like if I had been locked up in a hut all my life and now had contact with the real world for the first time. It seemed to go remarkably well.

When the book was finished, I did speak to a trauma expert who confirmed I had understood the behavior and mechanisms of the victims in a way that, in their experience, could have happened in reality.

The book is quite unsettling. When you like to be scared, what and who do you read?

I actually read exactly the kinds of books I write myself. I'm not interested in serial killers who go out for fun and stage some bloodbath. I don't like to read about spilling guts and gallons of blood. I want to read about normal people with whom I can identify. I find that a lot more creepy. I love Gillian Flynn, all of whose books I've read now, but also Harlan Coben, Paula Hawkins, John Marrs. I've also been very impressed by the Scandinavian Ane Riel, as I've been with Fiona Cummins, whose latest novel, When I Was Ten, I recently read as an early proof. And of course we also have some really good authors in Germany.

What's next for you?

My second thriller, working title Marta, Asleep, will be published in Germany soon, which is very exciting for me. I will also be on a reading tour again, which is always great fun, and I have just completed the planning phase for my third thriller. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

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