Lifelines by Heidi Diehl

Last year I read a book about swimming and Berlin and hydrology and the nuances in the German language, and it was like it had been written just for me.

Lifelines by Heidi Diehl is about the German psyche (their collective grief and shame), Düsseldorf, and urban planning. Another book written just for me?

Lifelines is also about music and art, the 1970s, what is expressed and what is left unsaid, and how we fit into our environment.

Moving between Düsseldorf in 1971 and Oregon in 2008, the story follows Louise, who arrives in Germany to study art. In Düsseldorf, Louise meets Dieter, a mercurial musician, and they soon begin a relationship. However, an unplanned pregnancy, their hasty marriage, and the tense balance between Louise’s art and Dieter’s music, takes a toll, driving Louise and baby Elke back to America.

By 2008, Louise has remarried, to an urban planner named Richard, whose research interest is desire lines. When news comes of Dieter’s mother’s death, Elke asks Louise to accompany her to Germany for the funeral. It’s Louise’s first visit to Germany since she left Dieter, and the trip forces her to reflect on the choices she made.

I enjoyed so many elements of this novel. Although I haven’t been to Düsseldorf, the story sparked my own memories of being a foreigner living in Germany – the unwritten rules at the public swimming pool; the cordoned off grass in parks; the alien (but delicious) bread; the small dish on shop counters for your change – I could go on, but needless to say Diehl has nailed the detail in this book, creating an authentic and seamless sense of time and place.

Without spoilers, Diehl examines the collective grief of Germans living in the decades after WWII. This was finely done, her observations astute. What particularly impressed me was how she captured the fact that this grief is an ever-present thing, humming in the background even for those not alive during the War.

“You can’t compare terrible with terrible. It’s different. It’s easier to be an American.”
“Maybe,” she said. “It’s all I know.”
“And being German is all I know. We have to pretend we don’t have any history, when actually we have too much history.”

I was acutely aware of this when I was living (briefly) in Germany in the eighties, and it’s something I have observed each time I have visited since. Much has been written in novels about the inter-generational trauma of the Holocaust from a Jewish perspective, however less often do we read about it from a German perspective. Diehl captures the complexities of their shame.

“You’ll hear the denial in the way people talk,” Dieter continued. “They say, after what happened, or before it ended. They can’t even say the real words.”

Diehl layers a number of themes in this story. There is much to be said about whether we lead with our heart or our head, and the parallel stories of Richard’s ‘desire lines’ research and Louise’s ongoing art projects provide a wonderful vehicle for this. Diehl also draws attention to the burden of secrets – how carrying information effects us in different ways, and how knowing particular things comes with a sometimes unwanted responsibility.

…wearing down a path better suited to their needs. Footsteps caused erosion; Richard liked how direct it was. Unconsciously, people were more assertive than they ever could be in the rest of their lives.

Lifelines is engaging, interesting and written with such insight and sensitivity. I’ll look forward to more from Diehl in the future.

I received my copy of Lifelines from the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

4/5 An impressive debut.

Hannelore showed Louise how to make rote Grütze, shaking sugar over raspberries and currents… Louise liked the pale stain it left on the bowl, the bleed into loose white cream.

I love rote Grütze. Here is the recipe that I use (it’s in English!).


16 responses

    • I’m jealous that you’ll be enjoying rote Grütze – as it’s winter here, I can’t really justify buying tonnes of berries for juice! My family in Germany would always whip cream and add vanilla sugar to the cream, to serve with rote Grütze. At that time, vanilla sugar was not something you could buy in Australia. Even though you can get it now (or easily make it!), I still buy heaps of Dr Oetker Vanillin Zucker when I visit Germany.

  1. Great post. Sounds like a very interesting book, that has to go on my to read list. Living close by I am frequently travelling in Germany, although I have not lived there.

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