A review of

The Book of Words

by Jenny Erpenbeck

Central question: During times of political unrest, can words be trusted?
Format: 96 pp., paperback; Price: $14.95; Size: 8" x 6"; Publisher: New Directions; Editor: Declan Spring; Cover design: Gus Powell; Cover illustration: Chris Neal; Author photo: Katharina Behling; Translator: Susan Bernofsky; Typeface: Times New Roman; Author also works as: opera producer; Awards received: GEDOK-Literaturpreise (2004), Jury Prize at the Ingeborg Bachmann competition for Siberia (2001); Number of times the word ball appears in text: thirty; Representative sentence: “I am trying to distinguish the silence of being alone from other silence.”

The Book of Words is a sinisterly lyrical novel. At its tiller is an unnamed woman who uses the accretion of detail to reclaim for words a descriptive exactitude that was lost to her in her youth. Reflecting back on her girlhood in an unnamed and repressive society, the narrator examines how periods of censure facilitate the unreliability of language. As the title suggests, the materiality of words is of interest to both the narrator, trying to make sense of the obfuscations that enfolded her youth, and to the author, a German whose style further ratifies the evergreen resources of modernism.

The exposition of the novel bears many of the stripes of present-day German literature associated with writers like Günter Grass. With the force of an incantation, the narrator’s opening salvo alludes to the bagginess of memory and binds the narrator to the task of summoning it: “I must seize memory like a knife and turn it against itself, stabbing memory with memory. If I can.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Christopher Byrd

Christopher Byrd is a frequent contributor to the Believer.

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