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Novel set in Germany (Snow White in the Orangerie with the tire iron*)

2nd September 2013

Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus translated by Steven T Murray, novel set in Germany (Taunus/Frankfurt)

1447227077.01.ZTZZZZZZThe title is inspired, and the cover striking: it invites strangers to come up and enquire what the book might be about (speaking from personal experience!). So full marks there. Over Three Million Copies Sold is trumpeted on the cover which interestingly seems to be a common pronouncement on the covers of books translated from German. It is also one of the featured reads on the Richard and Judy Autumn 2013 collection. So, all this bodes well for a gripping thriller to while away cosy Winter evenings, engrossed in a novel…. surely?

A gathering of the great and the good, and the less great and good in a village in the Taunus, just outside Frankfurt. The villagers are still reeling from 2 murders committed on 6 September 1997, and pathos heightens when Tobias Sartorius, jailed for the murders, is released and returns to his much-changed home, having served 11 years in prison. The body of of one of the victims, Laura Wagner, comes to light almost as soon as Tobias arrives back in his village. Coincidence? The body of the second victim, Stefanie ‘Snow White’ Schneeberger, is still missing. Amelie has recently arrived in the village and has a striking resemblance to Stefanie, which further unsettles the inhabitants.

The book is populated by many characters and for me it took several chapters to clarify the roles and relationships as they move from one scene to the next. I didn’t really warm to any of them to be honest, they felt a bit wooden and formulaic.

The structure of the novel is as though it was written with TV serialisation in mind, there are short, sharp chapters that are worthy of The Killing. And thinking of celluloid, this book is hugely reminiscent of the feel of The White Ribbon, (Das weiße Band) in the way the story and pathos build, and the sense of brooding menace permeates so much of life in Altenhain (which is actually a real place – and how do the real inhabitants there feel about their venal villager counterparts, I wonder??).

All-in-all a decent crime thriller, but – and here I go against the trend of positive reviews to be found on the internet – the voice of the translator rather drowns the writing style of the author. The translator, I understand, is also behind the translation of Stieg Larsson books, so he has quite some pedigree. The issue here, however, is that there is an overkill of Americanese, from prison being the ‘slammer’ or the ‘joint’, to the ‘milk room’ possibly (by deduction) being the dairy on the farm; convicts are being kept in ‘juvie’; or a telling phrase-“she’d gotten it on with Lauterbach”; and what exactly is a *tire iron for goodness sake (not to mention the American spelling of tyre)? Even a Centigrade reading in the original, which has been changed to Fahrenheit, really reinforces the American-English slant. Between us all at TripFiction, we read so many books by American authors where, for sure, the style and words are often different to British English, but they certainly don’t grate as they have done in this book. To be honest, this isn’t so much about the heavy American weighting, but more about the German author having her European voice stripped away.

The American slant is then sadly compounded by some very clumsy word choices that, frankly, left me wondering whether English was actually the translator’s first language. A prerequisite for successful translation means you translate from the foreign language into your Mother Tongue. It’s very baffling, therefore, to read clunky, chunky sentences, coming from such a renowned translator. A refectorium table? Or “..it was the absolute maximum credible accident..” (eh?) and as for a drunken woman “swearing a blue streak” (well, now I am confused!) …. and I am sure at one point the translator used prototype, when he actually meant stereotype. And would anyone in this day and age use hanky-panky when describing a sexual assault that leads to eventual murder?

However, to end on a more positive and amusing note – if they ever decide to serialise this book for Radio 4 Book of the Week then I vote that Boris Becker gets to read it. He has the right inflection of Americanese vocabulary, an interesting syntax when he commentates, and he can bring a European ‘feel’ with his great German accent-cum-American-twang. Perfect!

* A nod to aficionados of Cluedo, seemed somehow appropriate.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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