Romy Hausmann’s debut, Dear Child, translated from the German Liebes Kind, opens in ‘media res’. As in, it begins where other stories might end: the kidnapped has escaped, and the monster is defeated. But Hausmann is determined to prove everything you might have thought about what kind of story this wrong. And she succeeds wonderfully!
The psychological thriller puts you in front of a puzzle in the first few pages: The introduction is a newspaper clipping, titled “Student, 23, missing in Munich”, a woman and child following a hit-and-run accident 13 years later, and multiple first-person, often unreliable, narrators.
The three main narrators are 13 years old Hannah, an unnerving child whose prison is the only home she had ever known and whose captor is her beloved father; Lena, a physically and psychologically damaged woman riddled with shame and guilt and for whom freedom still feels like captivity; and Matthias, a grief-stricken father who has counted every day since his daughter’s disappearance (4993 days) and is determined to do right by her, in any way possible.
Although it’s classified as a psychological thriller (and it definitely lives up to it), Dear Child goes beyond the fast-paced, action-driven characteristics of the genre. The multiple first-person narration gifts the novel with more than a fun puzzle to piece together. It gives the author the space to explore a wide range of human emotions, be they conflicting, disturbing, or wrong, in all the wonderfully human ways. The true allure of the book lies in its honesty towards what a horrific experience like this leaves behind and in all the questions it proposes.
Have you truly escaped your captor if you still live by his rules after he’d been defeated? How do two children survive a world where the man, who’s not only a father and a monster but a god, has been taken from them, leaving them in a universe that is simply incomprehensible? When love turns to a maddening obsession, does it cease to be love? And who are we to say so?
It’s as fascinating to ponder these questions as it is to piece the story together. This novel is no Proustian narrative; however, as many complexities as it shows, it still stays true to the genre, providing new bits and pieces, secrets, and twists with every new page until the final ones when the whole story comes to light. The author admirably balances between these aspects, enriching each with the other.
The defining quote of the book is: “It’s hard to watch this, but maybe that’s how it is, love. It’s love. No matter how sick, distorted, and misunderstood, it’s still love. Love that spurs us on. That turns us into monsters, each in our own way.”
Dear Child is a very fitting title to a novel like this. At its core, it’s a parental love letter, torn and bloody, and a witness to unsayable acts of human-made horrors.
While the novel is dark and disturbing, it’s not graphic in its descriptions. Depending on one’s school of thought and personal preferences, this could be seen as a cowardly act from the author, a weak point of the book, a commendable writing choice, or a reprieve from the other horrors the book subtly presents. The reader holds the verdict!
An arguably weaker point, on the other hand, is the language. The translation can be clunky at points, but it doesn’t bear all the faults. The writing style is relatively simple for a novel that could have been an excellent literary piece if the prose was more developed, sophisticated, and refined to match the content. The metaphors don’t flow very well, and the book often falls victim to overused expressions and phrases. However, it should be said the simplicity helps make the 430 pages of the book easier and quicker to read, making it a good read for a weekend where it won’t take the average reader over three sittings to finish.
Overall, Romy Hausmann has proven herself a storyteller worth keeping an eye on with a debut that lives up to its reputation as both explorations of the depths, the darkness, the conflicting hope of the human psyche, and a thriller whose mystery will keep you clutching the book until the final page.