I was grossly under-prepared for the intensity of Julia Franck’s Back to Back. Which is probably why I found it so disturbing.
The story begins in 1954, and centers around a single family living in Berlin in the socialist East. The mother, Käthe, is a sculptor, who has been leveraging her party connections in order to get more significant commissions. Devoted entirely to becoming a success, she is a cruel and completely unaffectionate mother, putting the socialist party above her children – Thomas, Ella and (unnamed and mostly absent) twin girls. She treats her children as if they were adults – there is no bourgeois mollycoddling in her household.
“Käthe was hardly ever happy, but she was proud.”
Thomas and Ella are unable to live the lives they want to – instead of his dream of becoming a writer, Thomas is forced to study geology, including hard labor at a quarry as the practical part of his education. Ella drifts along, never finding her niche but becoming increasingly introverted and troubled.
There are strong themes of sexual and physical abuse in this book and whilst they make for tough reading, it was Käthe’s psychological abuse of Ella and Thomas that I found intensely disturbing. In particular, the opening scenes with Thomas and Ella, aged roughly nine and ten, fending for themselves while Käthe is away for a fortnight (!) were horrifying. Further along, the scenes describing Ella’s nervous breakdown were so well (and terrifyingly) written that it will be hard to forget them.
“Ella didn’t move; when no one could hear her she couldn’t hear anyone, and she didn’t think of anyone… She couldn’t sleep, she slept less and less, and for a shorter and shorter time. But she wasn’t awake now either. Her thinking didn’t obey her, she begged her memory please not leave her. Time passed. She could watch herself from the outside.”
The intriguing aspect of Franck’s writing is that when I look back over my margin notes, there were no particular scenes where Käthe’s cruelty is extreme or stands out (with the exception of Ella’s 16th birthday). Instead, it’s ever-present; an undercurrent, slyly woven into the text to give the reader this constant but nagging sense of foreboding and anxiety.
“Unlike Ella, Thomas seldom felt hatred. He was not annoyed with Käthe, he was annoyed with himself. What did he expect? Käthe had often told him and Ella not to make selfish claims. Moderation was all. No one had the right to love and protection…. Her children were to learn to work like anyone else, that was what she demanded, that was what she expected. Thomas liked her glowing cheeks, but he distrusted the reason for them.”
The line, “No one had the right to love and protection…. ” made me pause. And feel ill. Because, of course, everyone has the right to feel loved and protected.
My only critisism of the book was the pace – there were moments toward the end that felt out of sync, particularly Thomas’s work at the quarry, his romance and Ella’s education. Perhaps Franck’s intention was to present these plot developments as vignettes, however, after feeling so intimately connected with the children and their unsentimental household, I felt I’d been cut adrift.
There are a number of startling parallels between the story and Franck’s own family history – they’re described here but be aware that the short piece contains significant spoilers.
3.5/5 Never have I read a story where a mound of sugar becomes pivotal to the plot – intrigued?
I received my copy of Back to Back from the publisher, Grove/Atlantic via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
The children make Käthe lentil, bacon and celeriac soup. Try this simple recipe for Lentil and Bacon Soup by GoodFood.