Monday, December 11, 2017

To the Back of Beyond - Peter Stamm

Summary: After returning from a pleasant holiday with his wife, Astrid, and their two children, Thomas leaves the house. He walks down the street, and he keeps on walking. At first Astrid asks herself where he's gone, and then when he's coming back, and finally whether he is even still alive. 

In precise and hypnotic prose that cuts as cleanly as a scalpel, To the Back of Beyond is a novel that takes away the safe foundations of a marriage and a lifestyle to ask deeper questions about identity, connection and how free we are to change our lives. It is a graceful and resonant work from one of Europe's most important writers. (Summary and pic from

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My Review: Ok so here’s the deal. I have to admit that my review is going to be completely colored by the fact that I am absolutely judging the main character. That’s how book reading goes, though, right? If we relate to them—or even if we don’t—our opinions of the books we read are completely determined by our own human experience. I think one of the ways this has really been emphasized for me over the years is when I go back and re-read a childhood fave, or even one that was especially poignant to me in a certain part of my life. When I read it again I’m not going through the same thing and therefore it doesn’t hit me the same way. Or I like it more. Or I like it less. So although I am not personally someone who re-reads books a lot (there are so many more books to read! I don’t have time for old ones!) I completely understand that there is more to get out from a good book that just a first-time reading can give me. Or even a tenth time reading.

I will not be reading this book again. I got what I needed.

I think the summary on the back of the book pretty much describes all you need to hear within the first paragraph: “Happily married with two children and a comfortable home in a Swiss town, Thomas and Astrid enjoy a glass of wine in their garden on a night like any other. Called back to the house by their son’s cries, Astrid goes inside, expecting her husband to join her in a bit. But Thomas gets up and, after a brief moment of hesitation, opens the gate and walks out.”

So that’s it. The dude walks out. No explanation. Ever. And none ever comes, so don’t worry about waiting for it. Save yourself the grief and pain and struggle and sacrifice and questioning and confusion and loneliness and loss and anger and betrayal and resignation that Astrid had to deal with from this very selfish man with absolutely no explanation whatsoever. I mean, seriously? SERIOUSLY! I was so angry for her I basically couldn’t get over that the whole time. I tried to keep an open mind, though, maybe there would be some sort of human discovery where Thomas has to search his inner soul or something and comes back renewed (or doesn’t come back renewed, but either way, hopefully something went on) but there was no soul searching. The book itself is written in very short little blurbs that switch back and forth between Astrid and Thomas’ respective lives. From the accolades that Stamm has received I would have expected a lot more than I got. The short blips seemed almost like an outline, or maybe something a less experienced writer would do. There was no description, very little discussion of what was actually going on, more like just a report of the basics with no discussion whatsoever. Nothing of substance is said at all, really. Just a report of these people’s lives who were ruined because one stupid man made a very stupid choice that pretty much affected both of them and their children for the rest of their lives with absolutely no explanation from any of them. So there I am, completely annoyed with Thomas and his stupid selfishness and genuinely bad life choices, and there is no comfort of discussion or analysis or anything to quell my annoyance. This only fuels it.

I am willing to accept that maybe something was lost in translation. Maybe there is a subtlety in Switzerland where people are okay with spouses leaving them and having no discussion of it, but I don’t think so. This book was short and I think it was meant to be concise and thought-provoking, but I found nothing to provoke my thoughts. Just my extreme annoyance and anger.

My Rating: 1 Star.

For the sensitive reader: There was a a few swear words and a few sex scenes, although nothing graphic. This is on the tamer side of most adult fic.

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