Translated from German by Caroline Waight
It always a pleasure to discover a new press, especially one specialising in translated women’s fiction. Héloïse Press published its first book earlier this year. The second, translated from German, was, of course, the one to serve as my introduction. Let’s see how Laura Vogt’s What Concerns Us measures up to the type of book that Héloïse Press intend to publish.
From the publisher’s website:
Héloïse Press champions world-wide female talent. Héloïse’s careful selection of books gives voice to emerging and well-established female writers from home and abroad. With a focus on intimate, visceral and powerful narratives, Héloïse Press brings together women’s issues and literary sophistication.
Laura Vogt is Swiss and What Concerns Us is her second novel, which she started writing just two months after giving birth. The central theme is maternity, motherhood and the inevitable loss of individual identity and freedom that comes in catering to the needs of a child.
What concerns us features two sisters – Rahel and Fenna- and their mother, Verena. Verena was abandoned by the girls’ father during her second pregnancy, his excuse being he couldn’t handle the disappointment of having two daughters. Thereafter, Verena formed a stable relationship with another woman, and brought up her daughters by doing what needed to be done. Hard graft and sacrifice. No two ways about it.
The differing reactions of the sisters to this upbringing is for me the crux of the matter. Rahel, the eldest, remembers her father and has felt his absence ever since. So when she finds herself pregnant and abandoned in her turn, she determines that her child will not be fatherless. She strikes lucky – in my opinion, very (and perhaps a tad too conveniently) lucky – when she meets Boris, a writer with his own house in the countryside, who agrees to her almost immediate suggestion of moving him with him. Following the birth of Rico, they become lovers, marry, and Rahel, merrily playing happy families, persuades Boris to have another child. But hormones don’t always play a fair game, and Rahel finds she cannot bond with her daughter. Post-natal depression beckons and Rahel loses herself …
Whereas I wonder if her younger sister Fenna ever found herself. Rahel had a promising career as a jazz musician and a singer (willingly sacrificed). Fenna opted out of college and for a life working in cafés. She takes up with Luc, to my mind a feckless man, too wrapped up in his own needs to ever be a good prospect, but with all the charisma of a bad boy. One day, during a countryside walk, Luc misreads Fenna’s signals, drags her off into the woods and takes her. Fenna experiences this as rape, much to Luc’s surprise. However, after talking with him, Fenna changes her mind (sort of).
Each reader will form their own judgement, but following this incident Fenna decides to take back control of her own body, by coming off the pill. (I understand that only too well. Nothing more invasive than hormonal regulators.) However, a pregnancy results and Luc is once more on his travels. Fenna is much more relaxed about there being a missing father, for she has no memories of her own. Men are not a necessity for child-rearing. Her mother managed. She will too, if need be. Rahel, however, bears some resentment to her mother. Her childhood memories differ wildly from Fenna’s (and that is very interesting).
Clearly there are questions to be answered. Does Fenna have the resilience to see through single parenthood? What will it take to restore Rahel’s equilibrium? It seems Rahel’s first step is a reconciliation with the mother she regards as selfish, now dying of breast cancer. This key scene, which occurs towards the end of the novel, left me entirely bemused.* In it, the three women, drunkenly discuss and reclaim various words for female genitalia. What?
I suspect it’s a generational thing. But that scene – brave as it might be – left me cold. Otherwise Vogt’s thought-provoking and at times lyrical novel gladdened me that my child-bearing and child-rearing days are long gone. (Because it is not easy, whatever configuration of motherhood you find yourself in.) I’m taking that scene as an indicator for future reference: i.e the Héloïse Press catalogue is one to watch, but not everything is likely to gell with me.
• I suspect as bemused as Rahel’s Boris at the change in her following the birth of their daughter.