Wednesday, 10 July 2019

The Girl Who Wasn't There by Ferdinand von Schirach

The Girl Who Wasn't There by Ferdinand von Schirach
First published in German as Tabu by Piper Verlag GmbH in Germany in September 2013. English language translation by Anthea Bell published by Little, Brown in 2015.

One of my 2019 COYER Summer Hunt reads

How I got this book:
Swapped for at a campsite book exchange

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sebastian von Eschburg, scion of a wealthy, self-destructive family, survived his disastrous childhood to become a celebrated if controversial artist. He casts a provocative shadow over the Berlin scene; his disturbing photographs and installations show that truth and reality are two distinct things.

When Sebastian is accused of murdering a young woman and the police investigation takes a sinister turn, seasoned lawyer Konrad Biegler agrees to represent him - and hopes to help himself in the process. But Biegler soon learns that nothing about the case, or the suspect, is what it appears. The new thriller from the acclaimed author of The Collini Case, THE GIRL WHO WASN'T THERE is dark, ingenious and irresistibly gripping.

Reading The Girl Who Wasn't There felt like being in the audience for one of David P Abbott's medium unveilings! The novel is written in spare, almost stark, prose and my paperback edition is printed in a larger than normal font with blank pages left between chapters. Together these elements kept me reading at a pretty fast pace so I was aware of hints, clues and moments that just didn't seem quite 'right', but with the skill of a conjuror, von Schirach kept allowing glimpses then diverting my attention away. It's very cleverly done and makes the story both compelling and disconcerting.

This novel explores truth and reality, but shows that the two concepts don't have to be the same to everybody. The narrative is in two halves, each half with its own protagonist whose ideas and experiences seem to oppose each other. Sebastian has synaesthesia so sees the world through an extensive range of colours, many of which aren't visible to other people around him. His wildly successful artistic career has been based on the concept of showing the public alternative views of what they believe to be truth and I would love to see some of the artworks described in the story. I don't know if they actually do exist outside of von Schirach's imagination though!

The Girl Who Wasn't There would benefit, I think, from a different and more enigmatic English title. The original German title translates as 'Taboo' and I'm not sure why it had to be changed. Certainly the Stieg Larssen 'The Girl Who ...' allusion doesn't do this work any favours as its style is far from that kind of thriller. I'd recommend this instead to fans of mid-European fiction and thoughtful crime mysteries. It's an unusual, but a rewarding read.

Etsy Find!
by Ezic Arts in
Carlow, Ireland

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Books by Ferdinand von Schirach / Crime fiction / Books from Germany


  1. I hadn't heard of this book, but it sounds like one I would love. I like mysteries/thrillers.

    1. It's got a good sense of its style and a compelling story line