Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Floating in My Mother's Palm by Ursula Hegi

When my mother entered her tenth month of carrying me, I stopped moving inside her womb. She awoke that morning to a sense of absolute silence that startled her out of dreams filled with flute music and colorful birds, dreams she’d never had until she became pregnant with me, dreams she would have again when, two years later, she carried my brother.

…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.

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)
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.

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.


Serena said...

Sounds like you really enjoyed this book. I wonder if they will have the prequel at the next library sale.

gautami tripathy said...

I remember reading it 10 years back. I think I still have that book with me. Your review has made me want to re-read it. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Wow1 What a review. i will definitely have to read this one. I do own Stones from the River but never read it either. I guess it's time.

Jo-Jo said...

This sounds like one that I would enjoy also Anna. I read Stones from the River quite a few years ago and I just LOVED that one. Hegi is a great storyteller.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

The characters sound so interesting just from your review that it makes me want to go and find it. I love character-driven novels!

bermudaonion said...

Wow, you've got me wanting to read this now. Great review.

Unknown said...

Great library sale find! Don't you just love it when you discover a gem like this?

Booklogged said...

Thanks for sharing this review. I haven't heard of the book or the author, but I'm adding it to my list. I was born in 1950 so it would be interesting to read about someone growing up at the same time in a post-war Germany.

Kristen said...

I read Stones From the River but never did move on to this one. Now it sounds like I've really missed out. Must get my grubby little mitts on it somehow!

Suey said...

I read Stones from the River years and years ago, so long ago in fact I don't remember much about it except that I liked it. I didn't know there was another book with the same character.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a real gem. I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

Nikki in Niagara said...

Oh wow! This sounds wonderful! I'll have to see if I can ILL it, in the future.

Iliana said...

This sounds wonderful, Anna! I have read Stones from the River but didn't realize it was a continuation of sorts. That book, although, it's been so long since I've read it, I just remember loving it. Hope you'll get a chance to check it out!

Alyce said...

I don't think this is one I would have picked up before I read your review. It sounds great!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

Oh, if you ever do find your book cover online I hope you post an update, now you've got me curious!

This book sounds wonderful, both from your review and the excerpts that you posted from the beginning of the book.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a really awesome book. Great review. thanks for pointing out what I'm sure was a wonderful book. I hope to read it eventually.

Literary Feline said...

I do want to read this book. Stones From a River is one of my all-time favorite books but Hegi's other books just haven't lived up to that first one I read. I keep hoping though. Thansk for the great review.

Anonymous said...

wow...never heard of this book before but it definitely sounds interesting. I'll put this in my wishlist.

Anna said...

~Serena: I hope so. I'll be looking for it at any rate!

~Gautami: If you re-read, please let me know your most recent impressions.

~Lilly: I hope you get to read them soon.

~Jo-Jo: Glad to hear Stones From the River is good. Can't wait to get my hands on a copy!

~Rhapsodyinbooks: They're my favorite, too.

~Bermudaonion: Thanks! Hope you give it a try.

~Janel: Yes! It's so much fun weeding through the not-so-great books to find the treasures. But it stinks when people grab them out of your hand or out from under your nose!

~Booklogged: I hope you get a chance to read it. I'd love to hear what you think.

~Kristen: Please do! It's worth it!

~Suey: You sound like me, remembering nothing about a book except that you liked it. That's one of the reasons why I started my book blog.

~Carolsnotebook: Hope you get your hands on a copy soon.

~Nicola: Let me know if you give this one a try.

~Iliana: Thanks for letting me know it's a good read. I hope to get a copy soon.

~Alyce: Thanks!

~Dawn: I'll have to remember to have Serena take a picture of it for me. If only I had money for a better camera!

~justicejenniferreads: Thanks! Hope you get a chance to read it at some point.

~Literary Feline: I haven't yet read any of her other books but if Stones From the River is one of your faves, I'll definitely have to get a copy.

~Violetcrush: Hope you get to read it! I'd love to hear what you think.