Review published on August 14, 2017.
When carelessly crossing a busy road in Berlin, Helena is hit by a truck and wakes up in hospital three days later, suffering from a broken arm and leg. However, she quickly realises that her injuries are not limited to physical ones because not only does she not remember the accident but, frighteningly, she has no memories of the previous few years. She is told by the doctor that she has retrograde amnesia, the result of a blow to her head at the time of the accident. When she wakes up she is told that her husband, Joachim, named as next of kin on her papers, has just popped out for a coffee and will be back shortly. When he does appear she is relieved to see him as she feels he will be able to help her to sort out her confusion about what has happened. However, she also feels that there is something rather strange in his behaviour towards her; she wonders if they had had a row just before she had her accident. What she has no recollection of is the fact that they have been living separately for three years. Joachim, whose latest girlfriend has just left him because he hadn’t told her he was still married, realises that maybe he now has a chance to rebuild his relationship with Helena and so he doesn’t tell her the truth.
When she is ready to be discharged from hospital she still needs care because of her injuries, so he takes her home, thus reinforcing her dependence on him. He ensures that she is unable to make contact with the outside world by depriving her not only of a phone, but also of any means of gaining access to the internet. He keeps on meaning to be honest with her but the time never feels right, even when he realises that she suspects that he isn’t telling her the truth. The longer this situation continues, the harder it is for him to contemplate being honest with her. As fragmented memories begin to surface for Helena, the renewed closeness they have begun to develop is threatened by the emerging truth. Is it possible that can they eventually rebuild their relationship, and will Helena even want to when she discovers the extent of Joachim’s deception?
This disturbing, haunting and powerful story explores the minutiae of the relationship between the couple as they start to live together again; the tender moments, the petty irritations, the major disagreements, as well as all the old patterns from the past; patterns which begin to feel all too familiar when it becomes clear that they are being repeated in the present. In a psychologically convincing way, the author captures the fragility of a relationship which is based on dishonesty and an imbalance of power. Initially it is just Joachim who holds the power with his lies and his withholding of the truth but, as Helena begins to recover her memory, she too starts to lie and to withhold her own discoveries.
As the story is told in alternating chapters, the complexities of their relationship, both past and present, is revealed. The reader discovers why they were first attracted to each other and fell in love, and then what led to their separation. There were times when their dysfunctional patterns of behaviour, seemingly doomed to be repeated day after day, reminded me of the film “Groundhog Day”! Yet there were also moments when it felt that they did perhaps have a future together, if only they could be honest with each other. The possibility of second chances was a theme which ran throughout the story, but could either of them learn from their past mistakes in order to create a future together? The author’s exploration of how vulnerable someone struggling with memory is, and how easily they can be manipulated – after all, how can you possibly know what you can’t recall, and how can you trust the information given to you by a person with a vested interest in you believing a particular version of the past?
By the time I had finished reading this roller-coaster exposure to the inner workings of an essentially dysfunctional relationship I felt emotionally wrung out, as though I had lived through every moment of Helena and Joachim’s struggles. I think this is a real tribute to the quality of the author’s writing skills and her ability to make me care about these characters, even during those moments when I felt a combination of despair and irritation at their self-destructive behaviour! I thought that the ending was a masterpiece of the power of “less is more” in story-telling – but if you want to know what it is, then you will have to read this wonderful novel.
Linda Hepworth 4/5
Retrograde by Kat Hausler
Meerkat Press 9781946154026 pbk Sep 2017
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Cheltenham Literature Festival 2017 – line-up and Q&A
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