…On the window is a smudge where, just yesterday, she rested her forehead against the glass while gazing at the white lilac bush that grows behind the house. Nearly fourteen years later I will tear lilacs from that bush, wrap the stems in tissue paper, and carry them to the cemetery where I will drop them into my mother’s open grave. (from Floating in My Mother’s Palm, page 1)
Ursula Hegi’s Floating in My Mother’s Palm (1990) is a beautifully written, character-driven novel about Hanna Malter, who recounts her childhood and her neighbors in the small town of Burgdorf, Germany, in the 1950s. It’s not your typical coming-of-age story, as it is told in chapters that seem more like short stories, though I’m not sure they could stand alone as such. While some chapters are devoted to Hanna’s life, others tell in-depth stories about the people close to her during those years.
Hanna narrates the story as an adult, which I determined by the wisdom in her words and the one mention of lifting her son out of her crib, but in the stories she tells, she never goes beyond her early teen years. She shows how her parents—her mom, a young, carefree artist and her father, the town’s dentist who was engaged at the time—came to be married and the grief that weighed on the family when her brother died just days after his birth. Hanna is as impulsive and carefree as her mother, who swam during thunderstorms and took her daughter swimming down river, and one instance of carelessness (or stupidity, one might call it) after her mother’s death nearly kills her.
The adult Hanna isn’t afraid to show the bad decisions she made as a child, from spewing out painful secrets learned from the town’s librarian/gossip to searching for a suspected murderer in an abandoned flour mill. While Hanna’s stories of her youth are fascinating by themselves, add in her observations of the townspeople, and you have the recipe for one of the best, most captivating, and unforgettable coming-of-age stories I’ve ever read.
Hanna tells the story of Trudi Montag, the librarian whose developmental disability caused her mother to lose her mind and whose one chance at love could have turned into a nightmare (depending on how you look at it). Then there’s Klara Brocker, who keeps house for Hanna’s family and keeps the truth about her love affair with an American soldier at the end of World War II a secret from her son; Siegfried Tegern, a neighbor who owned seven snarling German shepards to protect him from dreams foreshadowing his death; and Veronika, a friend of Hanna’s mother with a mental condition that causes her to eat or dispose of any food in her sight. The story of the retired butcher turned gardener, Anton Immers, might not be anything special, but Hanna’s telling of the story is brilliant and captivating.
…They suspected Anton Immers’s violets grew so well because they were afraid.The ways in which the stories of the townspeople fit together with Hanna’s story is what truly makes Floating in My Mother’s Palm a work of art. Hegi paints a portrait not only of one young girl living in post-war Germany, but of an entire town of unique characters as well. Between the off-the-wall characters and the lyrical prose, I flew through this 187-page book in no time. I was sad to let these characters go, but I just discovered that Hegi later wrote another book, Stones From the River, that takes place in Burgdorf during World War II. In fact, Trudi, the dwarf librarian, is the protagonist. I must get my hands on this book, too! The only thing I wish Hegi would have included was more details about Hanna as an adult. I would have liked to see who she became, but it didn't impact my enjoyment of the book at all. That's just my curiosity speaking.
If a plant failed to thrive, he’d set it on the ledge outside his window where he’d let it shrivel in the cold air while the elite plants had to witness its slow death. During the summer, a night in the shop’s meat locker would bring the same results. In winter, when he brought in the plant, he sometimes had to brush snow from its brittle leaves before he placed it on the table next to his bed as an example to the others. There it would stay for weeks, turning brown and dry, until he decided it was time to annihilate the next plant. Carefully he’d choose the weakest one, feeling the other plants recoil. (page 113)
Floating in My Mother’s Palm is among the best books I’ve read this year, and it’s definitely among the best library sale purchases I’ve ever made. This is a must-read if you enjoy character-driven novels, eccentric characters, coming-of-age stories, and post-war settings.
(The paperback I snagged at the library sale is from Vintage Contemporaries, and the cover is different from the one included in this review. I couldn’t find the cover I have online, but I must mention that I love it. Hanna’s mother is a painter, and the cover painting of a mother and daughter in each other’s arms totally fits the story.)
Disclosure: I purchased my copy of Floating in My Mother's Palm.