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by Judith Hermann
Translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo
Reviewed by Akeela Gaibie Dawood

The five short stories in this slim volume have two things in common: an introspective protagonist, and death. We meet Alice as she quietly ruminates on the death of five men—a previous lover, an uncle she never met, a couple of friends, and her husband. Each of the men has touched her life, in small or larger degrees.

None of the relationships are well-defined or clarified to any extent, and the reader only gets a fleeting notion of the connections between characters. Yet while the human relationships are merely hinted at, and never become quite clear, Alice's observations of the physical world and her connection to it are keen and very well drawn.

The author holds a PhD in Philosophy, and this is not surprising. Her protagonist looks at the world around her and almost always wants to know more, feel more, and understand more of what she encounters. She seeks deeper meanings and significance in her everyday life and the physical world around her.

One example of the protagonist's musings can be seen when Misha, her former boyfriend, lay in hospital in Zweibrucken—Two Bridges—literally waiting for death to take him: "The name sounded poetic but to Alice, it presented a distorted image, because for the dying man there was only one bridge, if any at all. For whom was the second one?"

One gets the sense that the two bridges may signify the end of a journey for Misha, on the one hand, but a new beginning for his wife and child, who are left behind, on the other. While the tone of the volume is melancholic and dwells on death and imminent loss, the stories are essentially about love, and hope, and the lives of those left behind.

As life for each of the men comes to an end, we see the endless minutiae in the lives of those who remain behind; their lives continue relentlessly. Notwithstanding her father’s imminent death and her mother’s despair, a child is "learning to walk in spite of everything and precisely because of it all."

Hermann probes issues of life and death. Her prose is not sentimental; some may call it aloof. It is distant, quiet, pensive and preoccupied. Perhaps the writing demonstrates a method of dealing with death. While suffering the profound loss and the exhausting sadness it brings, those left behind must necessarily detach themselves and find meaning and connections in the physical world, in order to survive.

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