Book: “You Should Have Left” by Daniel Kehlmann, Ross Benjamin (Translator)
Publishing Info: Pantheon Books, June 2017
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: From the internationally best-selling author of Measuring the World and F, an eerie and supernatural tale of a writer’s emotional collapse
“It is fitting that I’m beginning a new notebook up here. New surroundings and new ideas, a new beginning. Fresh air.”
These are the opening lines of the journal kept by the narrator of Daniel Kehlmann’s spellbinding new novel: the record of the seven days that he, his wife, and his four-year-old daughter spend in a house they have rented in the mountains of Germany—a house that thwarts the expectations of his recollection and seems to defy the very laws of physics. The narrator is eager to finish a screenplay, entitled Marriage, for a sequel to the movie that launched his career, but something he cannot explain is undermining his convictions and confidence, a process he is recording in this account of the uncanny events that unfold as he tries to understand what, exactly, is happening around him—and in himself.
Review: Back when I was just out of college but still hadn’t quite found my footing, my dear friend Blake (bestie from high school, now far away friend) told me about this creepy book that he was reading called “House of Leaves” by Mark Z Danielewski . He said that it was basically three stories combined into one, told with transcripts, footnotes, weird spacing choices, and a claustrophobic nuance that made the reader feel like they were going a bit loony. I asked my sister to get it for me for my birthday, and when I picked it up it was so intricate and odd that it took me awhile to read it. But boy did I love the concept of a scary story told in weird, experimental ways. Flash forward to this fall, when my Mom sent me another of her emails saying “I found this book through the New York Times, you should look into it.” That book was “You Should Have Left”, and when I finally picked it up a few weeks later, I started having flashbacks to my time spent with “House of Leaves”. Only this one, clocking in at less than 150 pages, was possible to read in one night.
When we meet Narrator (as he has no name), his wife Susanna, and their little girl Esther, they have taken a cabin retreat to give him time to work on his newest screenplay. I mean, if you want isolation from the world around you, a mountain cabin is probably the way to go. The only parts of Narrator’s story we get to see are through his own writings, be it meditations on writing, the screenplay itself, or his random diary-esque entries talking about his family, the cabin itself, and other observations within the moment. It’s when he makes off the cuff remarks about things that seem odd that you start to slowly realize that something isn’t quite right here. Narrator is under such pressure, both in his professional life and his personal life, that as the reader you are constantly wondering how reliable these various things are. It’s a great device, and Kehlmann uses it pretty well. As various things happen, both in his personal and professional life AND within the house itself, it’s hard to know if one causes the other or vice versa. There were some really good moments of uncanny horror in this one, from strange silhouettes out of the corner of the eye to Narrator maybe seeing himself walking around inside the house even though he’s outside of it. Moments like these made it so that I was thrown for a loop and a bit weirded out, which was fun and unsettling and very satisfying because of it. Even though I read this all in one sitting, throughout that sitting I would find myself looking towards the dark corners of my bedroom and into the hallway, knowing I wouldn’t see anything, of course, but worried that I might. Any Gothic novel worth it’s weight knows how to make fear from isolation and darkness, and I felt like Kehlmann achieved it.
The translation itself was pretty good, Benjamin was very skilled and making the prose flow easily, and it never felt clunky or forced, or like anything was being lost from German to English. I find that can sometimes be a problem for translated works, so it was good that the suspense was still palpable and the tension still tight.
But sadly, because I went in with “House of Leaves” on the brain, this one didn’t quite live up to all of my expectations. I know that short and sweet horror can be very effective when it is done right, and while I do think that “You Should Have Left” was done very well, it sort of felt like a been there, done that kind of read for me. While that isn’t necessarily a relevant thing for those who haven’t read “House of Leaves”, it just wasn’t quite strong enough to buck that association and comparison. Had it been longer, and had we spent more time with Narrator as he either a) falls victim to a haunted house, or b) falls victim to his own emotional breakdown, perhaps I could have left my past associations at the door. While I do fully intend to go back someday and re-read “House of Leaves”, “You Should Have Left” is probably a one and done kind of ghost story for this reader.
If you’re in need of something short this Halloween season, “You Should Have Left” will probably whet your appetite pretty thoroughly. It’s unsettling and creepy, and knows how to push the right buttons.
Rating 7: An unnerving and eerie novella that kept me on edge, “You Should Have Left” was strange and raw. At times it felt like “House of Leaves”-Lite, but a solid and fast horror story it still is.
“You Should Have Left” is not on any Goodreads Lists as of right now, but honestly, if you want some similar books dealing in isolation and potential mental breaks, give “The Shining” and “House of Leaves” a try.
Find “You Should Have Left” at your library using WorldCat!