cover image Last House Before the Mountain

Last House Before the Mountain

Monika Helfer, trans. from the German by Gillian Davidson. Bloomsbury, $26 (192p) ISBN 978-1-63557-987-1

In Helfer’s spare, subtle English-language debut, an Austrian family is transformed during WWI. Maria and Josef Moosbrugger raise their four children in the shadow of a mountain outside a village, where their neighbors deride their poverty and worry the beautiful Maria will have a corrupting effect on the local men. Shortly after Josef departs in 1914 for military service, the mayor swoops in with offers to provide the family with food—but only if Maria tolerates his caresses—and Maria meets Georg, a traveler from Germany, whose ruddy hair and expressive manner make him the antithesis of the dark, saturnine Josef. Maria resists the mayor, and the children almost starve, and though Georg visits Maria only a few times, they fall in love. When Maria becomes pregnant, the villagers blame Georg. Josef, however, had twice come home on leave before the pregnancy, and when he returns for good after the war, he refuses to look at or speak to Margarethe, the daughter he insists is not his. Helfer brings a great deal of nuance to her exploration of female desire and vulnerability, male power, and community division. This should win the author wider recognition in the U.S. Agent: Markus Hoffmann, Regal Hoffmann & Assoc. (Apr.)