• Shortlisted for the Austrian Book Prize 2019
  • Shortlisted for the German Book Prize 2019
  • Translated from German by Jen Calleja

When Ruth Schwarz’s parents are killed in a car crash, it is only the first of many shocks, The second is that they wish to be buried in their home village of Gross Einland, a place that does not exist on any map. This does not deter Ruth. She sets off on a quest to find it, which she does, eventually, and then only by chance. If she felt disorientated before, this place has the potential to take the ground out from beneath her feet. Literally.

For Gross Einland sits above extensive mineworks, and the ground is unstable. Sections of the town collapse without notice. Children simply disappear as sinkholes open on their way to school. At other times the ground opens up to reveal corpses of people long dead. Yet the villagers discourage Ruth from asking too many questions. All except the countess, who acts as a feudal overlord. She knows everything about everybody, including Ruth and her scientific credentials. Ruth is a theoretical physicist, and the countess, ignoring Ruth’s protests about the theoretical part of her job description, corals her into inventing a filler to be injected into the ground to shore up Gross Einland’s foundations.

As Ruth sets about her assignment, she discovers that her parents, unknown to her, had been making frequent visits to Gross Einland. She suspects they had been investigating the hidden past, some secret tied to the fact that the mines acted as a substation of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, and that many of the labourers forced to work there remained unaccounted for after the war. Can it be that the pleasant people of this place are complicit in some huge war crime? Is the earth opening up to ensure that their guilt is revealed to all?

Edelbauer’s novel is a warning to her country that the attempts to downplay its role in Nazi atrocities cannot succeed: the truth will out, and it may well swallow the present. The almost feudal society of Gross Einland does not detract from that message, but it does inject an enjoyable Brigadoon effect. That this is a place out of time is perhaps a nod Ruth’s block universe theory (see footnote), where normal rules (i.e the ones I think I understand) don’t apply. And time flows differently, more slowly. When Ruth goes back to the “real world”, she has been gone twice as long as she thought. There is some ambitious mixing of fable and science here, not just in the ideas but in prose style with sections of Gross Einland’s past told as fable contrasting with Ruth’s detached scientific voice. Not an entirely successful mix for me, I must say. (I dropped physics at school like a hot potato.) Nevertheless an interesting novel, not as cute as its cover, with a flawed narrator.

For Ruth is crumbling too …

Footnote: Block universe theoryAccording to the block universe theory, the universe is a giant block of all the things that ever happen at any time and at any place. On this view, the past, present and future all exist — and are equally real.”