Summary and book reviews of The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck

The Blindness of the Heart

A Novel

By Julia Franck

The Blindness of the Heart
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2010,
    416 pages.
    Paperback: May 2011,
    416 pages.

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Book Summary

Winner of the German Book Prize, The Blindness of the Heart is a dark marvel of a novel by one of Europe’s freshest young voices— a family story spanning two world wars and several generations in a German family. In the devastating opening scene, a woman named Helene stands with her seven-year-old son in a provincial German railway station in 1945, amid the chaos of civilians fleeing west. Having survived with him through the horror and deprivation of the war years, she abandons him on the station platform and never returns.

The story quickly circles back to Helene’s childhood with her sister Martha in rural Germany, which came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the First World War. Their father is sent to the eastern front, and their Jewish mother withdraws from the hostility of her surroundings into a state of mental confusion. In the early 1920s, after their father's death, Helene and Martha move to Berlin, where Helene falls in love with a philosophy student named Carl, and finds a place for herself for the first time. But when Carl dies just before their engagement, life becomes largely meaningless for her, and she takes refuge in her work as a nurse. At a party Helene meets an ambitious civil engineer who wants to build motorways for the Reich and make Helene his wife. Their marriage proves disastrous, but produces a son, and Helene soon finds the love demanded by the little boy more than she can provide.

Julia Franck’s unforgettable English language debut throws new light on life in early-twentieth-century Germany, revealing the breathtaking scope of its citizens’ denial—the “blindness of the heart” that survival often demanded. The reader, however, brings his or her own historical perspective to bear on the events unfolding, and the result is a disturbing and compulsive reading experience about a country ravaged from the inside out.

Prologue

A seagull stood on the windowsill, uttering its cry, as if the Baltic itself were in its throat, high as the foaming crests of the waves, keen, sky-coloured, its call died away over Königsplatz where all was quiet, where the theatre now lay in ruins. Peter blinked, he hoped the gull would take fright at the mere flutter of his eyelids and fly away. Ever since the end of the war Peter had enjoyed these quiet mornings. A few days ago his mother had made up a bed for him on the kitchen floor. He was a big boy now, she said, he couldn’t sleep in her bed any more. A ray of sunlight fell on him; he pulled the sheet over his face and listened to Frau Kozinska’s soft voice. It came up from the apartment below through the cracks between the stone flags on the floor. Their neighbour was singing: My dearest love, if you could swim, you’d swim the wide water to me. Peter loved that melody, the melancholy of her voice, the yearning and the sadness. These ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Why do you think the book begins with Peter's mother leaving him at the train station?  How does the opening scene affect how we read the rest of the story?
  2. To what do you attribute Helene's mother's withdrawal?  Is it simply grief from losing her sons in childbirth, or is there another loss she has suffered?
  3. We are told early on that Helene's mother is Jewish.  How does her Jewishness affect her life and Helene and Martha's lives in their small town of Bautzen?  What can you glean about what Jewish life must have been like in these small German towns around WWI?  Is there hostility already apparent? In what ways?
  4. Helene seems more uncomfortable than Martha in acknowledging her ...
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Reviews

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What can the general reader glean from immersion in this period between wars, which offers seemingly little respite from a mostly bleak trajectory? This may be a fair question, yet it may also be unfair to ask for greater redemptive interludes; The Blindness of the Heart is very much a tale of chilling times, and fittingly, it adopts an unsparing approach... this demonstration of how easily passivity could happen, day by day... transforms one woman's story into a more piercing, provocative consideration of how society at large can permit crimes to escalate even when individuals may not condone them.   (Reviewed by Karen Rigby).

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Media Reviews
Der Spiegel (Germany)

The most astounding piece of storytelling of the season ... The way Julia Franck weaves together stories from the emotional depths and interactions and unpacks them again with an almost joyful thoroughness is exhilarating.

The Irish Times

Winner of the major German literary award ... Franck’s bold, often shocking family saga is fearless. ... There is a relentless sense of purpose about the complex, ever-shifting narrative that continually tests the reader.

Die Zeit (Germany)

This novel has everything it needs: talent and skill and something to say. It is hot and cold, cruel and idyllic, sensual and sober.

Evening Standard (UK)

Winner of the German Book Prize ... this is a great, big silence-breaker of a novel, a laser beam into the German darkness from a writer, one feels, has a great deal more to say.

The Guardian (UK)

Disturbing, original and brilliant.

The Independent (UK)

One of the most haunting works I have ever read about twentieth-century Germany ...The book’s moral perspective is faultless, as is Franck’s sensitivity to character, sexuality and the struggle to be a free woman in a fascist society. ... The Blind Side of the Heart is a masterpiece.

The Scotsman (UK)

A rich, moving, and complex novel ... A brief summary cannot do justice to the penetrating imagination of this book, to the author’s certainty of tone and to the wealth of significant detail she provides. [Julia Franck] offers a panorama of a society stumbling blindfolded towards disaster.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Franck's insights are profound and alarming, and her storytelling makes the familiar material read fresh.

Library Journal

There are no easy answers or pat resolutions in this dark novel, just a compelling narrative and solid writing.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Franck's impressionistic style and empathy encourage fresh responses to familiar subject matter - fine, disturbing, memorable work.

Reader Reviews
Mij Woodward

Fantastic!
I so loved this book. Absorbing, gripping, fascinating. Could not put it down. Seen through the eyes of a half-Jewish woman before, during and after WWII.

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Bautzen, Germany

Bautzen, located in the Upper Lusatia region, along the Spree River in Saxony, dates back to the Stone Age, though it was not mentioned in writing (as "Budusin") until the eleventh century. The city acquired its present name in 1868.

Its history has been marked by several widely documented events, including the pogroms on Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass") from November 9-10, 1938, so named for the orchestrated destruction of numerous synagogues, homes, and Jewish businesses by Nazi stormtroopers.

It is also the site of Bautzen I and Bautzen II, prisons that acquired notoriety as the "Yellow Misery" and the "Stasi Prison," respectively, for their treatment of those who were considered political dissidents during the ...

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