German author Maike Wetzel’s short novel Elly (translated by Lyn Marven) takes a deep, disturbing dive into a family’s worst nightmare. One night, on her way to the local sports centre 11 year old Elly disappears, completely, leaving behind her bike and her judo bag by the side of the road. The story that follows is one of quiet suffering and regret, sharpened four years later when a girl purporting to be the missing Elly is found and returns.
After a brief prologue the book opens with what is essentially a short story told from the point of view of another thirteen year old. This girl is in hospital and while recovering falls under the thrall of an older girl called Ines who shares her room. Ines wants her to take on another persona, that of an eleven year old girl called Elly, and she is only too willing to comply. This disturbing look at childhood power dynamics, feeds into the main story, mainly narrated by Ines but also at times her broken parents, about Elly’s disappearance and its impact.
Elly is a short and sharp. It puts the reader in the middle of a reasonably familiar story, or at least one that has been told before. In doing so, Wetzel pushes readers to feel the family’s pain, to understand their rational and irrational responses, and to explore how their hopes are played upon and their beliefs tested. It is a tough, sometimes stark novel that, even when all seems to have been explained, offers no easy answers.