The previous two offerings by Peirene Press were a delight so I was looking forward to reading the third, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius. I admit I was hooked by Meike’s quote about it being ‘a single 117-page long sentence’. What? I thought to myself, how is that possible? But of course, it’s a stream of consciousness novel made famous by Virginia Woolf in her novels. I haven’t completed any of Woolf’s novels yet (um…no excuse, really) but this being a novella made it a beautiful read. I liked the way the protagonist, the young mother, jumped from one thought to another, but always coming back to her baby and her faraway husband, always coming back to her fears and loneliness. I admired the way she tried to stay positive and strong for both of them, wishing victory on the German army only so as to get back what is most precious to her.

In this novella, Delius traces the thoughts of the young mother as she takes an hour long walk through the street of Rome in 1943, eight months pregnant, and waiting for her husband to return from Tunisia. She is on her way to a concert in a church, aware of but not a part of the poverty and hardship experienced by the locals. She’s wary of them, doesn’t understand the language, but secure in the knowledge that she is in a country that is allied with hers and that no harm would befall her. She thinks of her past, of her meeting her husband, of his wisdom and erudition. And even though she tries to keep her thoughts light, slowly, the fear, the alienation and doubts about the war seep through her thoughts.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman also tackles the sensitive issues of compliance and acceptance of Nazism for a young German growing up in the period. The mother recalls her youth in the young women’s league, her support of the fatherland and what she, as a patriot, believes in that the German victory will make everything all right. In some ways, this naivete is a product of her youth, especially her reliance on her husband’s opinions as well as that of her country, but you have to wonder whether she will live her life sheltered within her perceived ideology. But as the war progresses and her husband is taken away from her, the anxiety slowly shakes her belief in her country and in the end with the growing whispers of defeat, what she is left with is an urgent wish only for her husband to return to her.

I liked the last quarter of the book as she enters the Lutheran church to enjoy the concert, the one place where she can be herself and feel understood. And as the music lifts her spirit, it also enhances her emotions and Delius writes in such a way, increasing the speed of her thoughts, the pace, the intensity that you feel that you are there listening to the music as well.

A beautiful book. It’s not just a book of the young mother’s thoughts, it’s also a history book, a book of the past, of the present and the future. Of hope and fear. And most of all, family.

Many thanks to Meike of Peirene Press who kindly sent me this book to review.

Iris on Books and Novel Insights have also reviewed this book so do check them out!