By the side of a lake in Brandenburg, a young architect builds the house of his dreams – a summerhouse with wrought-iron balconies, stained-glass windows the colour of jewels, and a bedroom with a hidden closet, all set within a beautiful garden. But the land on which he builds has a dark history of violence that began with the drowning of a young woman in the grip of madness and that grows darker still over the course of the century: the Jewish neighbours disappear one by one; the Red Army requisitions the house, burning the furniture and trampling the garden; a young East German attempts to swim his way to freedom in the West; a couple return from brutal exile in Siberia and leave the house to their granddaughter, who is forced to relinquish her claim upon it and sell to new owners intent upon demolition. Reaching far into the past, and recovering what was lost and what was buried, Jenny Erpenbeck tells a story both beautiful and brutal, about the things that haunt a home.
In this original and evocative novel, Erpenbeck (The Book of Words) charts the history of a property in the Brandenburg hills through snippets temporarily opened windows offering brief, tantalizing glimpses before slamming shut. There is a Jewish girl murdered during the Holocaust; a disillusioned Communist activist who leaves Nazi Germany and returns after WWII; an architect who collaborated with Albert Speers on the Germania Project; two hard-partying structural engineering students who try to escape to the West, and so on. Amid all these protagonists, there is the recurring figure of "The Gardener," who goes about the bucolic business of maintaining the property with unwavering application. Erpenbeck's elliptical style, rife with naturalistic descriptions of landscape and geology, is better at describing the physical world than the emotional life of her characters, but in so doing, she hammers home her basic point that people are part of the same continuum as the trees and glaciers that come and go over eons, and that "eternal life already exists during a human lifetime."