In his first novel to be translated into English, German journalist Dirk Kurbjuweit delivers an urban thriller and ethical minefield. The novel, based partly on personal experience, asks how far a person might go to protect their family. And more importantly, how much does society, history and culture inform that reaction.
Fear starts with a quick bait and switch. Randolph is visiting his elderly father in what could be an old age home but turns out to be a prison. Randolph’s father is serving time for the manslaughter of Randolph’s neighbour Dieter Tiberius. The narrative is Randolph’s reflection of how his family has come to this point and how, bit by bit, they were driven from civilization to barbarism.
Randolph, an architect, has moved with his wife and two children into a block of flats in Berlin. Soon they have attracted the attention of the neighbour who lives in their basement. What begins innocently quickly gets out of control when Dieter starts writing suggestive poems to Randolph’s wife and then publicly accusing the couple of child abuse. They quickly find that there is little the social or legal systems that they rely on can do to help them manage the accusations. As they refuse to move out, the situation starts to spiral out of control.
Randolph is not the world’s most reliable narrator. As a reader it is clear that he is holding things back, but he also seems to be genuinely trying to work through how he came to this point. So that Randolph, for all of his dissimulating about some facts, come across as fairly honest. For example, from the start it is clear that his marriage is on the rocks. But an interesting aspect of his narrative is how the threat created by Dieter draws him back into a more meaningful relationship with his wife.
If this all there was to Fear it would still be an effective psychological thriller but Kurbjuweit has bigger fish to fry. Randolph’s reflections return to his childhood and in his memoir the themes of the book around the concept of fear more broadly start to emerge. This reflection is particularly rooted in the German experience. Randolph grew up in a house riven by fear, his father, who grew up during the Second World War, collected and practiced with guns to the point where Randolph would not have been surprised “if he started a massacre”. On top of this Randolph grows up in the sixties, in the shadow of what seems to be imminent nuclear war.
Kurbjuweit also explores how class plays in to expectations of proper behaviour. A number of scenes has Randolph, his wife and their friends debating issues of class. The reader never sees thing from Dieter’s point of view but Randolph discovers that he has had a tough upbringing and lives in a rent controlled apartment. So that the family and their friends are torn between their social conscience, their need to be seen to be doing the right thing and their desire for a secure middle class existence.
Fear is an effective thriller. While it is told in flashback form, Kurbjuweit effectively builds the tension, while throwing barbs at classist attitudes that might be fuelling some of Randolph’s reactions. Though he never comes out and asks the question, this definitely will have readers thinking about the lengths they might go to in a similar situation. And facing the realisation that, no matter how strange Randolph’s upbringing, their reaction (if not their ultimate response) might be exactly the same.