– Reviewed by Dipika Mummery –
Birgit Vanderbeke’s You Would Have Missed Me (Peirene Press), translated from the original German by Jamie Bulloch, is a curious novella set on the seventh birthday of the narrator, a girl whose family has recently migrated from East Germany to the “Promised Land” of West Germany in the 1960s.
Most of the book recounts various memories from the girl’s time in a refugee camp in the East with her mother, as well as anecdotes about her grandmother and what life was like at home compared with her time so far in the West. There are lots of wonderful details about life in both parts of divided Germany, and we see that the West wasn’t necessarily a haven for all refugees – particularly those with problems that they had to carry with them.
This is certainly the case for our girl narrator. We soon get the impression that her parents are indifferent at best towards their daughter; neglectful and abusive at worst. There’s one small but chilling moment when the girl lets slip that her mother places restrictions on how many drinks of water she can have, and another more significant section that seems to detail the worst of her encounters with one of her parents, which changed the way I read the rest of the novella.
We also find out that the parents only stayed together out of necessity – for the birth of our narrator – and that they both long for another life, far from each other, with different people and without their daughter.
This creates feelings of hopelessness in the girl, which can be quite difficult to read about at times, especially as the novella is written in the first person in an almost stream-of-consciousness style, so we hear a lot about how the girl feels about her situation:
“My mother told me about my birth, and when she was finished with that she said, I loved you nonetheless… I wouldn’t have thought it so bad if she’d said, actually I wanted a different child… Rather no love than nonetheless, I thought, because basically you couldn’t do anything with nonetheless.”
There are some moments of levity, especially in the girl’s recollections of the almost ridiculous behaviour of her mother:
“When we were at the Schwanen my father usually ordered the beef and onion stew, while my mother would spend a long time pondering what to have, what she fancied just at that moment, then she’d order something, and it didn’t matter what she ordered because the moment the food arrived she’d realize that she’d made the wrong choice.”
The narrator also lacks friends of any kind, so she constantly reminisces about three adults who befriended her in the refugee camp. These vignettes, together with the stories about her grandmother’s cooking, are the only moments that provide any real positivity or warmth in the book up until the rather fantastical ending. There’s one humorous recollection of the girl’s uncles congregating at her grandmother’s house and playing a song called ‘Yes! We Have No Bananas’, much to the chagrin of the grandmother who was well known for growing all sorts of produce in her garden – except, of course, bananas.
You Would Have Missed Me offers an illuminating yet dark insight into the realities of life for refugees crossing the German divide in the 1960s.
The added filter of a child’s perspective is one that may not work for everyone; for me, it lent an odd monotone to the overall style of the writing, which I struggled to reconcile with the subject matter at times. However, it’s worth noting that this is a semi-autobiographical account that adds to an increasingly important and ever-growing collection of refugee stories from around the world, and is all the more impactful for it.