A writer faces his mid-life crisis when he thinks about what he has become and what he has achieved, thus a new form of writer's block. He has the timely opportunity to go on retreat, as it were, when he receives a fellowship with other creative sorts to visit Wannsee in Berlin. It is not what he expects and a whole trail of questioning and paranoia follows.
The first problem is that he is expected to write in an open space with the rest of the group, without speaking, where all of his activity is on show. The dining arrangements are also set with the same group. This makes him uncomfortable, as if he is being watched all the time, thus analysed. He is unable to work like this but is told that it is imperative for the programme he is on. No writing takes place as is commented on by the other guests.
The story is told in the first person whose name is never revealed. His thoughts are expressed from his own perspective and is shown in a non-linear and at times almost stream-conscious. He considers privacy and oppression both from his personal experience in the centre and from the wider perspective of history, particularly Germany's. The centre has connections to the Nazi concept of the Final Solution, which, for obvious reasons, doesn't sit well. He also frequently visits the gave of a famous philosopher from the Enlightenment movement, which leads him to the theories he held.
While the ideas of oppression are interesting and the mental journey into deep paranoia are expressed well, there are times when the story is disjointed and the purpose is not clear. For example, there is a very (overly) long section where the cleaner tells her life story. A few paragraphs would suffice and when her tale is done, she is not mentioned again. Likewise, he becomes obsessed with an American police series and eventually meets the producer and makes parallels with his own oppressive concerns, but the length and detail of each episode is quite tedious. This is an interesting book and perhaps the sometimes unfocused sections are part of the depiction of the narrator's mental health. Maybe this is just the way it's supposed to be.
Published by Simon and Schuster on 7 October 2020.
Advanced review copy supplied by the publisher.
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