Tuesday 13 February 2024

Library for the War-Wounded by Monika Helfer - translated by Gillian Davidson #LibraryForTheWarWounded @BloomsburyBooks #MonikaHelfer #TranslatedFiction #BookReview


From Monika Helfer's award-winning, internationally bestselling wartime trilogy, based on her own family. Translated into English for the first time.

'We called him Vati, Dad. Not Father, not Papa. That's what he wanted. He thought it sounded modern. He wanted to present himself to us, and through us, as a man in tune with the modern age. Though he seemed to come from nowhere.'

Josef was an illegitimate child, a charity case from Salzburg, schooled by a benefactor. He was drafted to fight in the Second World War while still at school and sent to Russia, returning with only one leg. He married his nurse, and brought his family to the high, idyllic slopes of the Austrian Alps, where he took a position as manager of a home for injured soldiers, a strangely suspended, deeply isolated place with a remarkable library.

He was a man of many mysteries. To his daughter, Monika, none was greater than his obsession with these cloistered, crumbling books, his great treasure and secret amidst a country barrelling away from the memory of war.

Beautifully written, restrained, and memorable, Library for the War-Wounded turns a real life into great literature by confronting the universal question: Who are our parents, really?

Library for the War-Wounded by Monika Helfer, translated by Gillian Davidson is published on 15 February 2024 by Bloomsbury Publishing.  My thanks to the publisher who sent my copy for review. 

I am a huge fan of translated fiction, I usually read translated crime but have also come across some very special books in other genre. Library for the War-Wounded is fiction, but based on the author's own family. It is beautifully translated into English by Gillian Davidson. The writing is spare yet so lyrical, and the characters almost jump from the pages. 

The lead character is Josef, the father of Monika and her siblings. Josef was an illegitimate child who grew up in Salzberg, and despite being brought up by his single mother, with little money, he always had access to books. 

Josef was seriously injured in World War One, losing a leg, but at the same time, finding a wife. He married his nurse and they moved their family to the Austrian Alps. Josef became the manager of a home for the war-wounded, allowing a place of peace and comfort to those soldiers so badly injured during the fighting. Josef's love of books never left him and he built up an extraordinary library within the home; not that the residents really cared about the books, but for Josef this was his sanctuary. 

Monika narrates her story in an unusual way. The reader is taken back and forth, from the days when Josef first met his wife, to the present time, after his death. Monika always felt that her father was a mysterious man, with no past to tell them about. His ideas were forward thinking, but it becomes clear that he had many emotional difficulties. After the death of their mother, Josef's children were scattered far and wide, cared for by different family members and they saw and heard very little of him. When Josef eventually re-married, he gathered his family together, to make a new start. 

This is a short novel of just under two hundred pages, and the stye and structure of the story lends itself to being read in large chunks. It's not the sort of novel to read a page or two here and there, it needs as much investment from the reader as has been given by the author, and also the fabulous translator. 

The reader also gets to know other members of the family, and these characters add colour to what could be more of a musing by the author. There's Aunt Irma who acts as a stand in for their mother and Uncle Sepp, the man who confounds his family by marrying a prostitute. These outlying characters enhance Monika's story so much, confirming that this is no ordinary family at all. 

How many of us really know our parents? Who they were, why they became the adults that they ended up as. Do we always choose our own path? Are our parents always a guiding light, or are they more of a mystery?

A book to savour, not to be rushed, and one that conjures up images and questions of us all. Recommended. 

Monika Helfer is the bestselling author of novels, short stories, and children's books,
including, most recently, Löwenherz (Lionheart), Vati (Daddy), and Die Bagage (Last House Before the Mountain). 

She lives in Hohenems, Austria.

Gillian Davidson is a literary translator based in London. 

Born and brought up in Scotland, she studied French and German at Edinburgh University, spending a year at Würzburg University in South Germany. 
After working in Austria for six months, she returned to London to work in the finance office of a German company. 
She then spent most of her career working as an accountant in the UK public sector. 
Now retired, she enjoys devoting herself to her love of languages, adding Spanish to her repertoire. 


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