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Daniela Meisel: Wovon Schwalben träumen.

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The Dreams of Swallows
Vienna: Picus, 2018
ISBN: 978-3-7117-2071-9.

Daniela Meisel

Reading Sample

In her novel, "The Dreams of Swallows," Daniela Meisel portrays an Austrian Forest Quarter village's response to the Nazi seizure of power. The political shifts divide friendships and families and cleave village communities. Above all, they leave the novel's main character, the young loner Freda, powerless and puzzled in their wake. Since adults refrain from making any clear statements on the political developments, Freda must draw her own conclusions.

Freda is the grandmother of Marie, who is the main character in the second storyline. The deserted apartment of Marie's deceased grandmother is the ideal place for the young biologist to ponder, as no one knows it still exists. The first-person narrator Marie has a compelling reason to seek solitude; her considerably older partner Fritz has proposed to her. Marie has requested time to consider. Drawing on her experiences with relationships, Marie imagines the most likely scenario for their future together. Would she retain her independence? Would she continue to be professionally successful? What, if any, are the ulterior motives behind the proposal?

This fourth novel by the Austrian author Daniela Meisel embarks on an insightful search for a life far from manipulation and conventional roles. Freda is a character in the spirit of Pippi Longstocking living in Austria's Forest Quarter region in the 1930s. Her mother's efforts to raise her as a "good little girl" make her uneasy. Snubbed as an illegitimate child, she finds a confidant in Benjamin, a fellow outsider and a newcomer to the region. They read each other poems, marvel at nature, and seek a lonesome togetherness. In short, they reject the spirit of the age, which is dominated by physical fitness, discipline, and camaraderie. The social surroundings react to this friendship with skepticism. The fact that her new friend Benjamin is a "Jewish brat" sparks hostilities among the schoolchildren and the village community. When Benjamin, the son of a grocer in a neighboring town, stops attending school, Freda sets out in search of him and makes inquiries. Eventually, she discovers the reasons Jews have been disappearing.

The author portrays the villagers' different reactions and behavior without comment or judgment. Meisel's calm narration is not derailed by the oppressive and fearful developments, which cost lives and divide families. The novel maintains slow narrative pacing. This circumspect narration defines this novel and makes it special. It leaves space for the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps.

Short version of the review by Ursula Ebel, Nov. 6, 2018.
English translation by Hillary Keel.

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