Generally speaking, home is the place where we belong. Our family are there. Our memories remind us of the time spent there. If nothing else, home is where we keep our stuff. But while Dörte Hansen’s This is House is Mine (translated by Anne Stokes) centers on a house in Germany’s Altland region, many of the characters feel perpetually homeless. They are refugees—sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively.
This House is Mine is told by many voices. We hear from Vera Eckhoff, a Prussian refugee who crossed Germany at the end of World War II with her mother. We hear from her niece, Anna, who finds herself without a home after her partner and the father of her child cheats on her. We hear from Dirk zum Felde, a farmer in Vera’s village who stubbornly farms with pesticides and common sense while so many others go organic and turn their orchards into attractions for tourists from the cities. We also hear from Burkhardt, a laid-off journalist who thinks that a granola lifestyle in the Altland will be his remaking. Even though the four narrators are very much focused on themselves and how they will survive the future, their stories together make for an interesting exploration in being unsettled (again, literally and figuratively). Where does one belong when everything is in upheaval? What should one hold on to and let go of?
While all of this is heavy introspection is going, I found many moments when This House is Mine was hilarious. The refugees from the city, Anna and Burkhardt, in particular had me laughing constantly. Anna learned to be a mother in a hyper competitive urban environment. The other mothers taught her about letting children be autonomous, feeding them only the healthiest of vegetarian organic fare, and being a helicopter parent. Moving to the Altland, where children are expected to follow rules, is a gentle shock (and a bit of a relief) for her. Burkhardt is more an object of satire. He represents (especially to Dirk) all the misguided worst of the new wave of organic farming. His garden is eventually overrun by slugs. No one wants to eat his wife’s apple and zucchini chutney. His plans to write a country life-themed magazine falls apart when the locals refuse to perform for him and his photographer.
Anna and Burkhardt provide a touch of comic relief against Vera’s more harrowing story. While Anna and Burkhardt’s situations are largely self-made problems, Vera and her mother risked death to escape the Red Army in the last months of World War II. When they arrived in the Altland, they were anything but welcome. The contemporary Altland can make room for people until they figure out what they’ll do next. In 1945, refugees were a burden. Vera’s mother was an aristocrat who could not adjust to her new circumstances. Her arrogant refusal to change and be appropriately grateful led to tragedy and scarred her daughter for life.
Some readers may find This House is Mine disjointed. It definitely does not follow the usual patterns and flows of a novel, nor does it function like a series of linked novels. Rather, it felt like a bunch of individuals forced to temporarily share space. It’s not entirely comfortable, but it sure is interesting to watch what comes out when people are under pressure. I was entertained, then left with a lot to think about when it comes to how we create or fail to create a home for ourselves.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 November 2016.