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Last House Before the Mountain by Monika Helfer

Last House Before the Mountain

by Monika Helfer

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  • Published:
  • Apr 2023
    192 pages
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There are currently 22 reader reviews for Last House Before the Mountain
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MEP, Atlanta GA

Hardly Anyone Likable
I found it hard to get into this strange tale about three generations living in a remote corner of Austria. The plot centers on the years the father is away fighting in WWI, and stories are retold by several siblings, becoming a bit repetitive. There are no chapters or headings, and narration jumps back and forth in time as well as between characters. Very little is linear.

The large Babage (meaning riff-raff) family lives on the village outskirts and are objects of curiosity, disdain and lust. They keep to themselves and take care of each other. Villagers see what they want to see and are conniving, judgmental and uncharitable. All the characters seem to be out for what they can get, and hardly a single one is likable.

My favorite bit was the narrator comparing family members to Pieter Bruegel, the Elder's paintings of country life. It helped me visualize them and how they lived.
Jean F. (Bradenton, FL)

Layers of Memory
How do you learn about the generations before you? In this autobiographical novel, the narrator delves into the lives of her grandmother Maria, her mother, Grete, her uncles, and her aunt in Austria during WWI. Maria's husband Josef is away fighting. The family has little food and virtually no interaction with the villagers. Maria's beauty is something of a curse, and Mayor Fink who has been deputized to look after her, feels its pull, as does a German stranger.
The novel moves forward in a winding pattern with the relation of wartime events punctuated by details about the future fate of Maria's siblings. Apart from the narrator, the most present character is Aunt Kathe, a wise woman and source of much of the family's trauma-filled history.
I didn't love this book, but I admired the way Helfer wove in single strands of memory or fact and then re-introduced these elements later, often fleshed out. Although short, this book deserves careful reading and might prompt readers to recall what they know and what they intuit about previous generations in their own family.
Paula K. (Champaign, IL)

Heartbreak and Secrets
War on the home front can be as chaotic as war on the battlefront, especially if the home front is the last house before the mountain in Western Austria. The Moosbrugger family, known locally as baggage, is isolated and struggling to survive while husband and father Josef is away on the battlegrounds of WWI. Male attention to his wife Maria, mother of four children, intensifies during Josef's absence and includes the postal carrier who has lusted after her for years, the mayor, on whom Josef relies to watch Maria and tend to the family's welfare, and Georg, a German stranger. Although Josef comes home on leave, when Maria becomes pregnant, everyone suspects the German stranger. Daily life is chaotic and Helfer does an excellent job of portraying the main characters as well as the landscape, the rigors of daily life without electricity and running water, and the impact of secrets on families throughout the generations.

This heartbreaking story, which is based on Helfer's family, is narrated by a granddaughter of Josef and his exquisitely beautiful wife, Maria, but the narration is not told in a linear way. The novel's style reflects the story it tells. The prose is beautiful but the story unfolds in bits and pieces, leaving the reader to either become absorbed in the book, as I was, or to put it down in confusion. There will be a limited audience for this Last House Before the Mountain, but that audience will be well rewarded.
Ruth H (Florida)

When Men Go To War
I so enjoyed the story of Josef and Maria, their children and others that had an influence on this family. Once Josef went to war, the children stepped up to help Maria. Living on a farm by the mountains was not an easy task. Josef had asked the Mayor to look after his family until he returned from Serbia. I grew to dislike the Mayor very much!!! The author described many situations very well. The narrator was a little difficult to follow at times, but stay with the story as it is quite interesting. I wouldn't call this a romance novel, more a family history.
Deborah W. (Boynton Beach, FL)

A Story Out of Time
"Last House Before the Mountain" is a spare, quiet story told in plain language by a nameless narrator. It's set in Austria during the Great War, and it's mostly about her grandmother, the beautiful Maria, with some about her inscrutable grandfather, Josef and also their children, which includes her own mother. Who is the narrator's grandfather? Is it Josef, or someone else? With parental names like that, could the child be the product of an immaculate conception? The story loops back on itself several times, covering the same episodes from different perspectives (when they occurred, for example; and what the narrator's aunt says about them years later); and sometimes the narrator muses about what might have been said that might have changed things. The story has the feel of an allegory, something out of time that speaks to us across time. It's an unusual book with deep themes, but it's not for everyone.
Shirley T. (Comfort, TX)

Last House before the Mountain by Monika Helfer
The book is both a memoir and a novel based on the authors family history and the rather sad tale of a lonely poverty stricken family in rural Austria at the beginning of WW1 .

The style of the book, switching from the time of the war to the related story in the daughter's memoir is sometimes hard to follow. The characters are well described, especially the mother who is apparently so beautiful that many of the events and reactions depend on her looks. The hard working loyal but neglected children, the cruel vicious husband and the duplicitous mayor of the unfriendly village all add color and reality to the book. The husband goes off to the war leaving the family near starvation.

However a mystery occurs when a stranger appears only to disappear again. Is he real or a visiting spirit or only in the lovely mothers' imagination. When the next child, a daughter, is born to the mother, who is the father ?

The memoir never is sure but the fifth daughter becomes the strange mother of the writer.
Nancy K. (Perrysburg, OH)

Somewhat hard to Follow
The reader should know that this is really not about the war but about the family left behind to cope.the mother, Maria, tries to be a good mother but has her hands full. The children really raise themselves.

I would have liked the book better if the translator had more clearly made who was speaking. Pronouns such as she, her, or he needed names such as Maria said or Lorenz said. As it is I found it hard to follow the plot. Switching back and forth between Grete and her grand child several years later didn't make it any easier.
Rosanne S. (Franklin Square, NY)

Last House Before The Mountain
Well, it's been three days since I finished Last House Before the Mountain and three days for me to decide what I want to say in this review. The reason for this delay is simply I don't know what to say. Let's start here. I didn't like or dislike the book.
War is awful and many things occur that are memorable and even forgivable. What Maria, Josef and their family and community experienced was not surprising. It was disturbing.

For me, I felt that the story was more a confession than an accounting of life during war. Unlike many who have read this book before me, I do not feel that Maria was a naïve, helpless victim. She played off her beauty and appeal to men. She did not ask for trouble but she surely put herself in unhealthy situations. Often, she expected her children to be buffers. This greatly upset me and made me lose all respect for her.

I never understood Josef and because he was always "making deals"; I knew he couldn't be trusted. Each of the children had their own issues. They all seemed to be dysfunctional as adults.

This review may put me in the minority but it's my honest impressions.
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