A review of
The Book of Words
by Jenny Erpenbeck
The Book of Words is a sinisterly lyrical novel. At its tiller is an unnamed woman who uses the accretion of detail to reclaim for words a descriptive exactitude that was lost to her in her youth. Reflecting back on her girlhood in an unnamed and repressive society, the narrator examines how periods of censure facilitate the unreliability of language. As the title suggests, the materiality of words is of interest to both the narrator, trying to make sense of the obfuscations that enfolded her youth, and to the author, a German whose style further ratifies the evergreen resources of modernism.
The exposition of the novel bears many of the stripes of present-day German literature associated with writers like Günter Grass. With the force of an incantation, the narrator’s opening salvo alludes to the bagginess of memory and binds the narrator to the task of summoning it: “I must seize memory like a knife and turn it against itself, stabbing memory with memory. If I can.”
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