German author Mariana Leky’s latest novel What You Can See From Here (translated by Tess Lewis) falls into an almost fairytale style. Set in a small German village peopled by a range of eccentric characters, it uses some old story telling ideas to build a tale of tragedy, compassion and unrequited love. And it does so by staying positive, even when the situation gets dark.
When the book opens, ten year-old Luisa’s grandmather Selma has had a dream that involves an okapi, the African mammal that looks like a cross between a zebra, an antelope and a giraffe. The whole town knows that when Selma has this dream someone is going to die and so everyone starts preparing, worrying that they might be the victim. This first section focuses on Luisa and her best friend Martin as they go about their day, checking in on and introducing the townsfolk including the Optician, who has long held a crush on Selma but can not bring himself to tell her, Martin’s abusive father Palm and the perpetually bad tempered Marlies. Tragedy eventually does strike and it sits beneath the rest of the narrative which jumps forward to Luisa’s young adulthood.
The main driver of the rest of the tale is Luisa’s unrequited love for Frederik, who comes to the village from Japan where he is living as a Buddhist monk. As a relationship with Luisa does not fit with his Buddhist lifestyle, Frederik returns to Japan beginning a years-long long-distance non-relationship between the two. While this relationship is central, Leky’s narrative ranges around the other villagers and their own connections and relationship issues.
What You Can See From Here is part of a long tradition of stories of small towns peopled by an appealing range of eccentric and interesting characters. While there is not too much of a fantastical element, there is a hint of Hans Christian Anderson and other traditional fairytales beneath the surface of the narrative. Reader’s engagement with and enjoyment of all of this will depend on their willingness to go there, to spend time with these characters and immerse themselves in their lives.