The Girl Who Wasn’t There by Ferdinand von Schirach

the girl who wasn't therePerception and reality…

😐 😐

Sebastian von Eschburg has a troubled childhood. Son of a mother who seems incapable of warmth and a father who is terminally depressed, he also has a condition, never quite confirmed to be synaesthesia, that means he sees colours oddly and has visual hallucinations. This condition has little relevance to anything that actually happens, but is there to give us a great big pointer that the book is ‘about’ the differences between truth, perception and reality. When he grows up, Sebastian becomes an artist who creates sleazy photographs – sorry, I mean wonderful art installations – based mainly on the sexual exploitation of naked women, which is described graphically and at length. He is unable to express emotion except through his ‘art’, but manages to form a relationship with Sofia, an admirer of his work.

The first half of the novella-length book is taken up with a tedious description of Sebastian’s early life. Despite the sometimes shocking events of his childhood, the writing style strips it of any emotion – it is full of short, staccato sentences, attempting to sound profound but failing, combined with some utterly unrealistic sounding dialogue…

“Did you know that the colours of your photographs, that sepia colour, is the ink of the squid? Many doctors prescribe it for depression, to cure loneliness and a sense of the void. They say it can heal a human being’s wounded dignity.”

I read most of this first section thinking that the book was set in either the ’30s or the ’50s, but it transpires that in fact the book is supposedly contemporary, meaning that Sebastian’s childhood must have been in the late ’80s at the earliest. This curious time displacement is not, I think, deliberate, but simply an effect of not terribly good writing. Admittedly some of the problem may rest with the translation, which is remarkably clunky considering it’s between two languages and cultures as similar as German and English. There are in fact some things which must surely be translation errors – for instance, at one point, the book mentions the “capital offences department” of the public prosecution team. As a lawyer, presumably von Schirach is aware that capital punishment was abolished in Germany decades ago, long before the period in which this book is set, but perhaps the translator is not. A case, maybe, of a literal translation of a word without paying enough attention to its cultural meaning in context.

Ferdinand von Schirach (
Ferdinand von Schirach

After its lengthy and tedious preamble, the book takes a sudden turn in the second half, when Sebastian is arrested for murder, and the second half is about the trial. Difficult without spoilers, but this whole section is ridiculous – my credulity meter went off the scale within a few pages and never recovered. I simply don’t believe that any part of this can reflect the German legal system. As well as using a blunt instrument to bludgeon the reader with his point about reality and perception, we are also treated to an irrelevant rant about the morality or otherwise of torture being used on suspects during interrogation. Fair enough, except that von Schirach can’t seem to make up his mind whether he’s trying to imply that torture is routine or exceptional. Either way, the torture scene as it’s written is so incredible it’s almost laughable, and I fear the same goes for the later court scenes too.

I enjoyed von Schirach’s The Collini Case very much, but I fear this one had all of its weaknesses and none of its strengths. I’m not sure that it ever had anything profound to say about art or perception but if it had it lost it somewhere between the tedium of the first half and the sheer unbelievability of the second. A disappointment.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown.

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47 thoughts on “The Girl Who Wasn’t There by Ferdinand von Schirach

  1. I am sorry this was such a disappointment, FictionFan. Like you, I enjoyed The Collini Case very much, and was hoping this one might be, as well. Shame that it turned out not to be. I think part of what made The Collini Case appealing, at least to me, is its exploration of some of the larger issues involved in what might seem like a straightforward murder case. There’s a coherent set of questions in it. It doesn’t sound as though there is in this one…


    • In some ways it seems to be trying to duplicate the format of The Collini Case with the first half being background and the second half the trial. But the legal point in The Collini Case was intriguing and real, whereas in this one it just seemed well outside the scope of credibility. And the addition of the torture strand really was just an excuse for him to make a speech on the evils of it – a rather unsubtle speech at that. Shame.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ha ha ha! One to be avoided. The title reminds me of that silly childhood rhyme: As I was walking up the stairs I met a man who wasn’t there, he wasn’t here again today, I wish that man would go away. 😉


  3. Ah, so once again you have saved your adoring fan base from making wasting good reading time on something not. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I can rather imagine that the strengths and weaknesses of ‘Collini’ (which were both evident) might well turn into double weaknesses once he moved out of the territory of Collini, which was really what overrode some of the obvious flaws of von Shirach as a writer – a kind of disengagement with character, and more a cerebral working out of concepts


    • I don’t know why but I seem to get a stream of great books followed by a stream of… less than great ones!

      Yes, this one followed the format of The Collini Case in some way – first half background, second half the trial. But where the point in The Collini Case was powerful and real, in this one sadly it was just silly. And he threw in all kinds of things that weren’t really relevant, like the synaesthesia and the torture, which just made it all even less credible. One of these short books that seemed to take forever to read…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, dear, what did you do to merit the task of reading and reviewing stuff like this?? It sounds most awful, though I can’t tell which half would prove harder to read! I’d say you’re due a good book by now, wouldn’t you?!


    • Haha! I can’t even blame anybody else since I pick these books! I was thinking exactly that – I seem to be having a run of disappointing reads at the moment – must be some wonderful ones piling up waiting for me…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The chap does cut a magnificent pose at his mac, you must admit. Though, it is a pose. He’s really not doing anything important, see.

    Anyways and a few, I might feel a bit bad for Sebastian. More for Sofia. Why does she admire his work?


  6. What a shame that this one did not live up to the promise of The Collini Case although as I always I have enjoyed reading your pithy comments on why this did not work – very enlightening and odd about the clunky translation!


    • I was disappointed after enjoying The Collini Case so much. I don’t know why the translation felt so clunky – the translator seems to be experienced, but this one felt at places as if she’d just translated the words without really thinking about the meaning, if you know what I mean.


  7. I had the dubious pleasure of having to blanket recommend this for a month in my day job. Found it difficult as like you I loved The Collini Case and Crime/Guilt. This one was really disappointing and hated the really sleazy bit…uurgh…..


    • Ugh! I’d find that hard – the one downside of selling books! Yes, I thought the sleazy stuff in this one was particularly sleazy and didn’t really serve much purpose. Yeuch – I was glad when I finished this one, I must admit!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. If that quote is any indication, your poor review seems justified, because I can hardly figure out what it means and it certainly doesn’t sound like natural dialogue!


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