Friday, May 18, 2012

book review: Alice by Judith Herman

Translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo

The backstory: Alice was shortlisted for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

The basics: Told in five sections, Alice offers five glimpses of its titular character. In each section, there is also a death.

My thoughts: Given the short length of this novel (160 pages), I intended to read it in a single setting. After I finished its first section, however, I wanted time to ponder. I ended up spreading out this slim volume over five days: one for each of its sections. Some describe this book as linked stories, and while I suppose that is technically true, it read like a character-driven novel. Alice is the focus of each section, even though the sections are named for the person who dies. As the theme of death becomes more clear (the first character was on death's door as the novel began, while the second character was unexpectedly ill), the argument that Alice is a novel becomes stronger. Taken individually, the focus can be on the death of the characters whose section bears their name. Taken as a whole, the stories are Alice's and made this reader ponder bigger notions of life and death. It was easy to identify with Alice, as we've all known people who have died, but it was also easy to imagine myself as those characters who were neither Alice nor the dying ones. The scope and shape of the story rely on this perspective.

Favorite passage:  "When she got back from her visit, Alice had asked Raymond, Would you rather die before me or after me? After you, I think, Raymond had said. It had taken a while before he could answer; he seemed to consider the question itself impossible. Why? He asked. He wasn’t quite sure. And you? She’d shaken her head and put her hand over his mouth. She couldn’t answer him."

The verdict: To view the life of a person by witnessing the actions before and after five deaths is beguiling. Alice herself was fascinating, and Hermann's writing is crisp. While all five sections could work as standalones, this novel truly is more than the sum of its parts.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 160 pages
Publication date: August 1, 2011
Source: interlibrary loan

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Alice from the Book Depository or Amazon (no Kindle version, sadly.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

16 comments:

  1. Oh this does sound interesting, and fascinatingly arranged. I love that you read one section each day and then took time to ponder. I don't think I have ever heard of a book quite like this. It sounds very powerful and amazing. Very nice review today. I am going to see if I can grab this one soon.

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    1. It was such a unique and interesting read. I'm so glad to have read it and am also curious about the writer's other works.

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  2. MUST GET! This sounds...crazy weird...but also super compelling, and I love novels that are interconnected stories -- plus, this sounds like something to chew over. I'm going to try to read it this summer, I think!

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    1. Audra, I can't wait to hear what you think of it!

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  3. I love how this one is structured. Very interesting. First time I've heard of it too!

    BTW...I see that you are reading Run right now. I can't wait to hear your thoughts on that one.

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    1. Ti, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has really highlighted titles I had never heard of. It's also fascinating to read more translated fiction.

      As for Run, I hope to finish it this weekend and review it next week!

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  4. Thanks for your review. I know I won't have time to read it before the award is announced, although I've read a few others by default. Still want to read this one!

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    1. Jenny, I've thoroughly enjoyed both of the shortlist titles I've read so far and am looking forward to the rest!

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  5. This is such an interesting sounding book. I sort of have issues with death and feel like it's something I need to resolve for myself.. wonder if this book would give me something to think about in that vein.

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    1. Jenny, with something so personal, I don't feel qualified to say, but it certainly made me think about death in several ways. It was very thought-provoking.

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  6. It sounds like I would really enjoy the structure of this one. Thanks for another great rec!

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    1. Andi, given your love of short stories and novels, I think you'd really enjoy this one!

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  7. I haven't heard of this one, but it sounds like I should get my hands on it! I'm reading another short book at 170 pages (I imagined I will finish the book sooner, but I keep stopping between chapters to think about it.)

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    1. I love powerful, short novels, and this one was quite intriguing!

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    2. It's very interesting to hear a positive review of this book. I was on the 'Shadow' IFFP jury this year and we pretty much all expressed surprise that this one had made the shortlist. It didn't really click for any of us. So I'm glad to see it worked for someone, at least!

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    3. Mark--Ha! I'm often the one questioning why books are included on short lists, particularly with short stories. Thanks for stopping by.

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!