Published last week, Maike Wetzel’s debut novel (after two collections of short stories) Elly is one of the most gripping books I’ve read in a very long time. What begins as a standard crime/thriller trope, and every parent’s nightmare, turns into a thoughtful study of grief and loss, uncertainty and dissimulation.
The kernel of the plot – a young girl disappears without trace one summer evening, then apparently turns up again four years later – has the simplicity of a short story premise, but the length allows the story to be refracted through multiple viewpoints. Elly’s elder sister Ines, her mother, and her father all take turns to reflect on her disappearance and reappearance, along with others touched by the events, while Elly herself, and the facts of her disappearance, remain unreachable.
At just 150 pages long, Elly shares the best qualities of Maike’s short stories – a rumbling sense of unease or menace, an unemotional focus on emotionally-charged family dynamics, and above all Maike’s careful, pared-down prose style. (For those unfamiliar with her work, Maike’s microfiction ‘Déjà vu’ showcases all of these qualities.)
Set on the outskirts of Rüsselsheim, the book has a running theme of hunting which lends an air of urgency and violence to Elly’s disappearance, from the birds of prey the sisters watched soaring over the fields, to the hides situated on the edge of the forest where Ines retreats with the boy next door. Elly’s mother Judith describes her younger daughter as as ‘Meine Kleine, mein Wildfang, mein Hort’ (My little one, my wild child, my shelter).
Right up until the end, when Elly herself finally speaks, Elly will leave you breathless – and you can read more in the English-language sample here in my translation, or in German here. You can also buy her collection of short stories, Long Days, as part of a bundle for #WomeninTranslationmonth from Comma Press.