“You Should Have Left” by Daniel Kehlmann [Why This Book Should Win]

This entry in the “Why This Book Should Win” series is from Jenny Zhao, an undergrad student here at the University of Rochester.

You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from the German by Ross Benjamin (Germany, Pantheon)

The premise of You Should Have Left is a familiar one, not all that different from The Shining: a writer and his family take vacation in an unsettling house in a secluded mountain locale, mainly in an effort to give a writer’s-block afflicted writer a chance to finally begin work again. Kehlmann defies any expectation of the familiar becoming boring in this short 107-page thriller. In Benjamin’s translation the prose reads quickly, yet the pacing of the tension is slow, absorbing, but becomes perfectly frantic. It details a writer’s mental unraveling, or the unraveling of reality in this house. We learn that he may not be the only person to lose his mind here, that this may be an ancient location of terror. Reflections in glass don’t show what should be there, the house may not be a place he can leave, his wife may be cheating on him. Any of it may be real; all of it may be in his head. It is terrorizing for him, and he passes that terror to his family. It’s dark and strange, reminiscent of the hit Netflix show, also German, Dark, with touches of Philip K. Dick, Lovecraft, and straight thrillers. Kehlmann masterfully builds a world and there is an unsettlingly self-aware main character. Natural, smooth prose is also disrupted by odd word choices and structure, an effective move by Kehlmann, captured by Benjamin, to add to the unsettled feel reading it. This makes for a bold statement and illustrates the madness of the novel, and the paradoxes of the storyline. As strange as a house which physically and metaphorically eats away at the inhabitant is, it all comes together and I couldn’t leave, was forced, like the family, to see how it all unpleasantly and terrifyingly collides together.

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