|YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT
Daniel Kehlmann (www.kehlmann.com)
Translated by Ross Benjamin (www.rossmbenjamin.com)
A writer heads to the hills, retreating to a snow-bound chalet, with his wife and four-year-old daughter to try and write a sequel to his breakthrough film. While the solitude should allow them to enjoy each other as family, the writer’s wife seems glued to her mobile phone and long-repressed arguments begin to boil over into full-blown fights. And there’s something not quite right about the house, some strangeness that we only glimpse in brief passages in the writer’s notebook that he doesn’t remember writing.
You Should Have Left is barely more than a novelette, but it’s one of the most powerful and gripping pieces of fiction you’re likely to encounter this year. Taking the form of the writer’s notebook, we find ideas for the script, snippets of diary, and a haunting treatise on the breakdown of a family and, most likely, the sanity of a man in pain.
It’s difficult not to draw parallels with Stephen King’s The Shining, partly because of the tongue-in-cheek reference to that very work:
I do find myself thinking of that move sometimes. That good movie based on the not-so-good book.
The one with all the Steadicam shots.
The writer’s breakdown here is much less violent than that of The Shining’s Jack Torrance, but that doesn’t make it any less intense. There are also parallels with Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves, as the house itself begins to make less and less sense as the story progresses: pictures that are sometimes here, and other times there, and then gone altogether; night-darkened windows which show reflections of rooms which do not exist; and doors which appear out of nowhere, leading to who-knows-where.
The broken narrative, a brief glimpse of life interrupted by dialogue for the new film, for example, adds to the sense of unease, never allowing the reader to settle into a comfortable rhythm. There is a genuine sense of fear in the writer’s words, so that we never question what he claims to see; whether it’s reality or the imaginings of a shattered mind makes no difference: this is a place we have no desire to be, though once we delve into the mind of the writer, it’s impossible to look away until we reach the bitter end.
Its length makes You Should Have Left a story that demands to be read in a single sitting, so it’s worth making sure you have the time to spare before you crack it open. From the beginning, there is no doubt that we’re in the hands of a master of manipulation, as Kehlmann (ably assisted by Ross Benjamin’s translation) turns a laugh to a scream, and guides us through a landscape of horror and pain, often thinly disguised as love, happiness, family. Despite the parallels to King and Danielewski, there is still something here that we haven’t seen before, some original spark that sets Kehlmann out as a writer deserving of a global audience, a must-read for anyone who prefers a helping of discomfort with their bedtime read.
Once opened, Daniel Kehlmann’s latest, You Should Have Left, demands to be read through to the end. Gripping and unsettling, it is, without doubt, the best piece of fiction I have read this year. Short and powerful, it’s a must-read for fans of Stephen King. While £10 seems steep for the barely 100 pages the book contains, the beautiful hard-back package and the stunning story within are more than worth the price of admission. In a word: unmissable.