“Who could do a thing like that? Wieck said.  “Who kills bees?” ….

“Someone who has a problem with the sweetness of life,” he said, astonishing himself with his own words, because it was unlike him to tolerate such fanciful turns of phrase.

Indeed the animal kingdom does not fare well in Paulus Hochgatterer’s 2006 German Book Prize longlisted psychological thriller.  Neither do the humans.  

 A 6-year old child is playing chess with her grandfather when there is a knock at the door.  He goes out and when he does not return, she goes out to discover his corpse by the barn – lying out in the snow, his head squashed flat.

From this moment on, the novel becomes psychological in the truest sense of the word.  The symbolism of that initial incident pertinent to the minds flattened by their experiences.  The child is rendered speechless and becomes the patient of the psychiatrist, Rafael Horn.   The methods he uses to try and unlock her mind and thoughts in his as he does so, completely authentic as the author works as a child psychologist in Vienna.  But does she hold any clues to the crime?

Other strands of the story are told by a variety of troubled narrators, the detective, a priest/teacher, and a disturbed boy whose alter-ego is Darth Vader.  It soon becomes clear who the killer is to the reader but not to the detective.  The writing is emphatically fixed on the development of the minds of the protagonists and how they came to be the troubled individuals that they are.

There’s no respite either for the fictional psychiatrist.  No expecting that in his professional practice but perhaps knowing the answers would help in his own family life.   Not so.  The relationship between his wife and their adult son is fraut, verging on estrangement.   Analysing it, he comes to the conclusion that nothing could have been done to avoid it and at least, his family isn’t as dysfunctional as others in the village. 

This sleepy picturesque Austrian village is teeming with violent undercurrents.  Be prepared to be shocked at some of the domestic incidents portrayed and even more so, that no one is willing  to stand witness to help put a stop to it.  When the book was first published in 2006, I think Hochgatterer received some criticism for his picture of Austrian society.  Since then, however, real life has demonstrated how unsweet life can in sleepy picturesque Austrian villages. Hochgatterer was born in Amstetten, a village now synonymous with the horrific crimes of Josef Fritzl.


The Sweetness of Life was the Austrian recipient of a European Prize for Literature. This award program spotlights the literary talents of Europe.  By 2011 each of the 34 countries participating in the EU Culture Program will have one winner each.  Hopefully this will help stimulate translation of many texts.  Of the 12 awards given in 2009, there is only one other available in English and that’s the Irish winner, Longshore Drift by Karen Gillece.

Has anyone read any of the other winners?  How was it?