I read Shorter Days for German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. My first thought when I was done was that the book was more or less what I expected, but a week later, I am still thinking about it. Hahn has successfully gotten under my skin.
The two main characters of the novel are Judith and Leonie. Both are in their thirties; both have two young children. They live in the same upscale neighborhood, but their lives couldn’t be more different. Judith is a stay-at-home mother who religiously follows the Waldorf principle for bringing up her children: no TV, no plastic toys, no candy. Leonie has a full-time job and her girls go to daycare, so everyone is used to rushing around.
Leonie grapples with the guilt of not being able to spend much time with her children. She is secretly jealous of Judith, especially at night when she can see Judith’s family sitting down for a home-cooked dinner while she is still waiting for her husband to come home. Little does she know that Judith is so insecure she is addicted to pills and nicotine and still dreams about the man she was “addicted to” when she was in college. Judith is unable to see anything but failure when she looks at her life and cannot connect to the people around her.
The entire book is about this disconnect between perception and reality, or rather how two people can perceive the same person or the same event very differently. What one thinks is an intimidated look is a challenge to another. Judith sees the lipstick smears on her elderly neighbor’s teeth and shudders, but the elderly neighbor shudders when she looks into the mirror and so tries to hide her age behind the lipstick. There is very little interaction between characters, but lots of guilt, disillusionment, and isolation. There is an underlying sense of foreboding, but I wasn’t sure whether to expect domestic violence, infidelity, child abduction, or something else entirely. The story gradually gathers speed until it is moving quite swiftly towards a big bang and a wide open ending.
I normally don’t like that, but here it works. This is not a book about scratching on the surface of people’s lives; it’s about tearing down the entire façade and exposing what is—and is not—behind it. Any hint of how to rebuild after this destruction would have taken away from the end. It is not what I expected when I started reading, but it is what made this book quite impressive.
Shorter Days has been translated from German by Anne Posten and is published by Frisch & Co. I’d like to thank the publisher for making a copy of the book available to me.