My first selection for German Literature Month X (2020) is the rather grim read: Dörte Hansen’s This House is Mine. Spanning 70 years, this is the story of a drab farmhouse and the three generations of tough women who live there. The book opens in the aftermath of WWII. Dour Ida Eckhoff owns the farmhouse and shares it with her son, Karl, who was lucky enough to return home from a Russian POW camp. He’s not the same man any more. His mother “didn’t recognize him, now that he’d started talking to snowflakes and trying to escape from the Russians.” The arrival of Polish refugee Hildegard von Kamcke and her 5 year old daughter, Vera, ignites a war as the two women, Ida and Hildegard struggle for control of the house. Hildegard wins, marries Karl, and after Hildegard lays down an ultimatum to her mentally absent spouse, “it’s your mother or me,” Ida is found hanging from an attic beam.
Possession of the house brings no joy to Hildegard, and a few years later, she buggers off to a Hamburg suburb with a lover, abandoning Vera to Karl’s dubious care. But it’s Vera who ends up taking care of the childlike Karl, and in time, Vera grows up and becomes a much-feared dentist.
Vera is a respected and yet also loathed figure. In spite of the fact that she has lived in the farmhouse for almost her entire adult life, she does not fit in.
For just as long as it took to do one round of the garden, she longed not to be the other, the foreigner.
She owns ferocious dogs, is an avid hunter, and the local men are afraid of her (with good reason). Enter Anne, Vera’s niece, another displaced person (for a different set of reasons) who seeks refuge at the inhospitable farmhouse.
This is a grim tale and it includes a few scenes with Vera slicing and dicing her many kills from hunting. The women in these pages are tough, tougher than the men, and even though the story spans 70 years, from the grimness of post WWII to the 21st century the stains of the war remain for those who endured it. For this reader, the house is a metaphor for life:
This house wasn’t built for people who wanted warmth and comfort. It was the same as with horses and dogs; you couldn’t show any weakness, couldn’t let yourself be intimidated by this colossus, which had stood with its legs apart on the marshy soil for nearly three hundred years.
This House is Mine is a tale of fitting in–fitting into the world, fitting into our families, making choices and dealing with the tragedies life throws our way. The story moves between the fearsome Vera who projects the desire to be left alone, when in fact all she wants to do is belong, and her niece Anne who rather intrepidly begins renovating the decaying farmhouse.
She still didn’t trust this house, but she wasn’t going to let it throw or spit her out. She wouldn’t let herself be rejected like a foreign organ. She refused to let herself be rejected like the majority of refugees, who’d gotten out of the large farmhouses as fast as they possibly could and moved into small houses in developments grateful and scrupulously intent on avoiding becoming a burden to anyone else for the rest of their lives.
Translated from the German by Anne Stokes
12 responses to “This House is Mine: Dörte Hansen”
As you know I am a rather squeamish reader, but this description means I’ve put this one on my list, ‘Grows up to become a much feared dentist.’
Yes from the way Vera tromps around, gun under arm killing everything in sight, you know patients aren’t going to get the kid glove treatment.
This does contain a few things that trigger me but I still think it sounds very interesting. Vera isn’t the kidn of character we come across very often. I’m not entirely sure why but your review gives me a bot of an Otessa Moshfegh vibe. Especially Death in her Hands and the also Olga Tokarczuk. Are there any similarities?
I haven’t read Death in her Hands yet but have a copy. BTW tried to leave a comment the other day on your blog but couldn’t. I recommend White Ivy.
Strange – about the comment. Nobody mentioned anything. Hope it was a one off. Death in Her Hands is so similar to Tocarzuk‘s novel „Drive Your Plow. . .“ The similarity is uncanny.
What a weird comment. Sounds like Olga Tokarcuzk is a Moshfegh novel. I think you know what I meaant.
Yes Tokarcuzk and her character Duszejiko came to my mind as well.
One for the TBR pile, methinks.
Sometimes, I wonder if there’s any translated German lit that isn’t grim or tortured. This makes me think of Herta Müller.
That’s exactly who I thought of too.
A similar conceit to Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation – although that is a much cooler, less grim tale than this sounds.
Haven’t read that one. Seen it and considered it.