cover image You Should Have Left

You Should Have Left

Daniel Kehlmann, trans. from the German by Ross Benjamin. Pantheon, $18 (128p) ISBN 978-1-101-87192-8

A family vacation in the mountains goes terrifyingly off-script in Kehlmann’s brief and chilling novel. The narrator, a screenwriter working on a sequel to his last successful film, begins a notebook to record the highlights of the trip. At first, this record shows the conventional frustrations of marriage: the screenwriter feels distant from his wife, an actress named Susanna, and is bored by caring for their four-year-old daughter, Esther. As the rift between spouses widens, however, he begins to notice and describe inexplicable and increasingly frightening phenomena. His reflection goes missing from the windows of the rented house; photographs appear and disappear from the walls; disturbing dreams of “an empty room, a naked light bulb on the ceiling,” and a woman with “awful eyes” haunts his sleep. Then a stranger encountered in the nearest village advises him to “quickly get away,” and the same message also begins to appear in the notebook, in his own handwriting—but it may already be too late to escape the house’s influence. Kehlmann (Measuring the World) makes deft use of horror staples and offers commentary on the distinction between art and life: “in a movie it’s funny when a life falls apart, because the people say clever things while it’s happening, but in reality it’s only dismal and repugnant.” But the plot of this spare and occasionally thrilling novel is ultimately indistinguishable from a by-the-numbers horror flick. (June)