Ferdinand von Schirach focuses on the impulses behind murder, and in The Girl Who Wasn’t There, defense lawyer Konrad Biegler faces a difficult case when he represents Sebastian von Eschburg. The novel begins with Sebastian’s childhood. It’s a familiar story of a wealthy family who went down the toilet when one generation made the money and the next spent it. The family mansion fell into disrepair. But it’s still a vast house, sitting on acreage.
Plaster flaked off the walls, the two side wings were not heated in winter, and moss grew on the rooftops. In spring and autumn metal buckets stood in the attic to catch the rain.
In this dismal environment the relics of treasures of various continents mingle with dead animal body parts–the remnants of the Eschburgs’ hunting expeditions. Sebastian is born at home when the car belonging to his parents won’t start. As a neglected, lonely child he’s ‘different,’ and sees his world through a wider range of colour spectrum. The human eye normally sees colours between 400-700 nanometers.
There had always been two worlds in Sebastian’s life. The retinas of his eyes perceived electromagnetic waves between 380 and 780 nanometers, his brain translated them into two hundred tones of colour, five hundred degrees of brightness and twenty different shades of white. He saw what other people saw, but in his mind the colours were different. They had no names because there weren’t enough words for them. His nanny’s hands were cyan and amber; his father’s skin was a pale greenish-blue. Only his mother had no colour at all. For a long time, Sebastian thought that she was made of water, and took on the shape that everyone knew when he went into her room. He admired the speed with which she had always successfully performed this transformation.
He loves the house but is sent off to boarding school at age ten. There are many names given to various psychological states, and no doubt there would be one to fit Sebastian. He’s a disturbed child and he becomes more disturbed after his father’s suicide. Eventually Sebastian becomes an acclaimed photographer, and his work, which questions reality, is controversial. He slides into porn (which is an interesting approach to the reality question) and violence. When Sebastian is accused of murder, there seems to be a natural path from his artistic material to the accusations against him.
The sections about Sebastian’s mother and his childhood are the strongest in the novel. In spite of an intriguing plot, this novel was a limp read. While I felt compassion for the lonely neglected child, Sebastian, as an adult, is not convincing and the whole murder/solution was too sketchy and contrived for this reader.
Translated by Anthea Bell