I finished my first German book, Floating in My Mother’s Palm by Ursula Hegi (or at least, my first German book that I’m not reading for my WWII project).
This book takes place just after World War II in the town of Burgdorf, Germany. Our main character is Hanna, a girl between the ages of unborn and 14 throughout the course of the story. Through her perspective, the reader explores the town and the people living within it. She’s the axis upon which the plot spins, making the story about her and not about her at the same time. The book starts out with Hanna talking about her own birth before jumping to the stories of individual townspeople, stories in which she usually has only a peripheral roll. The telling isn’t always sequential. In fact, it’s almost cyclical with the end mirroring the beginning (although occurring years later).
Another huge factor is a sense of place that Ursula Hegi distills within this book. There are beautiful descriptions about the rivers and meadows surrounding the town, details of the shops and stores, and characteristics of the homes. She even discusses the rubble, relics of bombings.
Despite the fact that this book starts less than a year after the end of the war, the story isn’t about the war. In fact, the war is only mentioned in so much as it impacted the people or the lasting effects it had.
Hegi won me over with her descriptions, filling this world with such detail and imagination that it felt real to me. Her language is beautiful and flowing, much like the river that flows its way through the story. If Hanna is the axis of the wheel, than the river is the road, drawing her and the village along after it. I think one of the most beautiful descriptions is of Hanna’s mom carrying her as a baby:
“When I’m three she will tell me I slept under her heart, and I’ll envision a warm and well-lit place where I waited to be born.”
I think every child sleeps under his or her mother’s heart and does so throughout life. Or there’s the quote from which the book has its title and is strangely reminiscent of the above phrase:
“If I look closely, I can almost see myself floating in my mother’s palm. Yet, when I shut my eyes, I find a different image of my mother releasing me as we dance in the storm and twirl in separate circles that cause the water to ripple from us in widening rings which merge in one ebbing bracelet of waves where the borders of the quarry meet the water, far from the center where my mother and I continue to spin our bodies in the radiant sheen of lightning.”
Hanna and her mother swim during thunderstorms, betraying a sort of impetuous, risky characteristic juxtaposed against the safety of being nestled in a parent’s hand—or under her heart. This sort of dangerous, sad behavior is almost too beautiful, too human for words.
This book is more a curation of tales of the townspeople loosely strung together through Hanna than a cohesive plot. This is both praise and criticism. While the way in which the story is told—through a collection of tales following a theme of mother and daughter (or maybe parent and child, which is mirrored in each of the stories)—is engaging and lyrical, it also lacks a true climax, which made me feel a little let down. In fact, the pivot upon which the somewhat climactic last story turns was never really explained, which also made me feel let down.
Also, this book reads almost like an introduction of a series rather than a standalone book. Which is ironic because while it is part of a series, a reader should be able to read it on its one. And she can. Nothing is left hanging, technically, but it feels unfinished.
If you love plot-heavy books, this isn’t for you. But if you’re interested in place, in discovering a specific spot in a particular time, in understanding the people in a little piece of Germany post World War II, this is for you. It’s beautiful.