Reading Journal #2 Stefan Kiesbye, Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone (Penguin, 2012)

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My second novel annotation for September is a wonderful little angstfest that would be a great October read…if you enjoy squirming in your seat and–what’s the German word for ‘heebie-jeebies?’ It’s not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

As always, these annotations are bound to contain SPOILERs, so if you haven’t read the book, I recommend you do.

 

Topic: The Effects of Multiple Narrators in Stephan Kiesbye’s Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone

Excerpt 1, Martin p. 72: Alex Frick’s Boyhood Crush on Anke Hoffman

Last year, Alex had fallen mortally in love with Anke and had tried to get her to unbutton her blouse, and she had declined. He’d tried the whole fall and enlisted Broder as the messenger for his lovelorn letters.

Comment:

This passage serves as the ‘gun on the mantelpiece’ that later discharges in the form of Alex casually raping Anke in the back of a sedan. Without the knowledge that Alex had wanted Anke from childhood and been frustrated, the rape would have seemed disconnected and improbable. Knowing what we do from Martin’s account of Alex’s feelings, as well as other descriptions of Alex’s psychopathic behavior, Anke’s rape, while shocking, is no surprise.

Excerpt 2, Martin p. 73: Christian’s Atonement

“You didn’t bring me any luck with your sister,” Alex said.

“She didn’t like you,” Broder said brightly. We all laughed; it was the truth. Even quiet Christian laughed. He was a pale boy, his hair and eyebrows so light he looked naked. He had lost his father two years before, and when he changed his sports clothes at school, we could see the scrapes and bruises on his arms and back. But he never complained.

Comment:

Having smothered his sister at the age of seven and willfully, if indirectly, caused the death of his father at age eleven, Christian’s passive behavior makes sense. Showing his acceptance of his mother’s constant physical abuse through another’s eyes deepens this character. It hints at a need in Christian to be punished for his crimes. He is no less an irredeemable monster, but at least he seems to have a sort of twisted conscience.

 

Excerpt 3, Linde p. 82: The Early Redemption of Martin

Then there was Martin, the Gendarme’s son, who’d asked me for a barrette I’d worn when we’d run into each other the previous week. Was he serious about me? He was only sixteen and owned no moped, only an old bicycle. Last winter he’d been with the other boys the day Broder Hoffman had drowned. But only Alex Frick had been found guilty and been sent to a correctional facility. Since that accident, Martin acted different, seemed older, more mature than even Torsten. Anke said that she liked Martin best, but that none of my admirers had a future and that her mother had admonished her that we should save ourselves for better men.

Comment:

Linde and Anke liked Martin best of all the village boys, despite his relative youth and poverty in comparison with the others. Linde describes Martin as acting more mature and seeming older after Broder’s death. Seeing Martin positively changed by an experience casts him as the only person in Hemmersmoor who may not be a complete psychopath. Additionally, this passage shows Anke’s early lack of faith in Linde’s future prospects, which foreshadows Anke’s future rationalization for betraying her friend.

Excerpt 5, Linde p.105: Anke’s Desperation

“It looks like Rutger Kamphoff,” I said.

“He’s chasing after Anna.” Sylvia was the tallest of us and had been the first to get breasts. She’d kissed two boys, while neither Johann nor Torsten had ever asked me again if I wanted to kiss them behind the school or by the river at night.

“It can’t be,” Anke said, infuriated.

“Sure can,” Sylvia replied.

“He’ll never marry her. Never ever.”

“As if you stood a chance.”

Anke closed her book and pouted.

Comment:

Linde first reveals more of her own insecurity about her looks, her prospects with boys, and the beginnings of a future disdain for all males. She then shows Anke’s desperation to win Rutger and live in the Big House, and a motive for Anke’s brutal betrayal years later after she drops Anna Kamphoff’s baby on the floor.

 

Excerpt 6, Martin p. 164: Linde likes it rough.

After dark the scars on her face vanished, and her skin glowed very white, and she wrapped herself around me and demanded that I slap her face or hit her with my belt. Only when I obeyed her did she permit me to unbutton my pants.

 

Comment:

In this account of a typical sexual encounter with Linde, Martin reveals that her father’s disfiguring attack years earlier did more psychological damage to Linde than physical. We see through Martin’s experience what could never be revealed as effectively by Linde herself.

 

The Takeaway:

As in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Kiesbye’s Your House Is on Fire presents multiple narrators with chapters headed by each narrator’s name rather than a number. Kiesbye does not overlap narrations in the same way as Faulkner, who shows different narrators describing the same events. Instead, Kiesbye’s chapters are separate events, most of which can stand alone as separate and complete stories.

While Faulkner deepened each of his characters by showing individual reactions to shared events and internal thoughts from different points of view about those events, Kiesbye uses his separate and distinct story-chapters to reveal characters through the observations of one of four narrators.

Perhaps Kiesbye could have created a deeper empathy with his characters by adopting Faulkner’s method of overlapping narrations and showing how each reacts to the same events as the others, but Kiesbye’s choice to reveal characters through the eyes of his four narrators is nearly as effective. Kiesbye uses one narrator to show the characteristics of each of the others, providing motivation for and foreshadowing of each character’s later actions, or in the case of this novel, crimes.

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One response to “Reading Journal #2 Stefan Kiesbye, Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone (Penguin, 2012)

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