The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr

The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr (translated by John Brownjohn) fulfils its early promise: it is a brilliant portrait into the dark places of one woman's memory. There are one or two hints that things are not as they should be in the opening section.  For example, Cora and her husband Gereon work for Gereon's parents: their young son is not only looked after by his grandmother during the times his parents are working, but he stays with his grandparents during the week, only sleeping at home at weekends.

The book begins with Cora's strong desire to commit suicide, an impulse triggered by an attempted sexual approach from her husband. The impulse becomes an obsession, but before Cora can fulfil her objective, she is distracted into committing a terrible crime. The rest of the book concerns Cora's treatment by the police, doctors and lawyers as "the system" grinds into gear and the people in command – invariably male – decide what to do with Cora and how her case should be handled. Is she insane or should she be in prison?

Cora herself is in no doubt: she wants to be imprisoned and makes this very plain in her voluntary statements to the police. But Rudolf Grovian, the police commissioner, is less sure. Cora has suffered a terrible head injury in her past and has no memory of how it came about. She constantly changes her story. She says things, for example when describing the details of her crime, that don't ring true compared with other criminals Grovian has interrogated over the years. She's tense and obsessive: she waters the plants in the interrogation room and criticises the police for their unclean coffee maker in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.

The Sinner is a dark book. Its interest for the reader depends on one's willingness to enter the journey to discover Cora's past, to repeatedly dissect her childhood up to the age of 19: sometimes fantasy, sometimes real, sometimes a mixture - who can know? Cora has at least two self-consistent mental landscapes, and is in strong denial about many events in order to protect someone or some people. Her parents have themselves changed dramatically for the worse by their experiences in the Second World War – Cora's father is said to have shot Polish children while in the army, and her mother to have been the "girlfriend" of many soldiers. He has become a passive yet dangerously repressed parent and she a deluded religious maniac.

Through Cora's paternal aunt, Grovian becomes aware of the existence of Magdalena, Cora's invalid sister. Magdalena's role in the story gradually comes to dominate, as Grovian and subsequently others involved in Cora's case try to find out what really happened that night six years ago when Cora received her injury. Which of the various accounts that Cora tells her interviewers, or herself, are true? Is there really a murder involved – and if so, who is the perpetrator and who the victim?

The Sinner is a compelling, unsentimental book for readers interested in the many deceptions and strategies of which the conscious and unconscious mind is capable. It isn't a conventional mystery or exciting thriller, but in my opinion far more satisfying than either. The author creates a fully rounded portrait of her protagonist, ties up the hints and fragments that have permeated the narrative from the first page, and carries her mission through right to the final sentence. I think The Sinner is a work of great merit that transcends any attempt to categorise it into a genre.

I have recently read the four available, translated books by Karin Alvtegen (Missing, Betrayal, Shame and Shadow). There are similarities between the two novelists, in that both of them dig deep into the souls of their characters, and both do not shrink from the bleakness of despair and disgust, showing the full effects of human cruelty. Alvtegen's novels are perhaps more conventionally exciting and "of the genre" than Hammesfahr, whereas Hammesfahr is more interested in pushing at the limits of how far the mental, dissociated state can take someone, and the effect of trauma on psychology and personality. Both authors are very confident at plot and pace. I find both of them absolutely wonderful at providing unflinching insight into the human condition while at the same time creating a plot-driven story; I congratulate them and their translators.

Fiona Walker's excellent review of The Sinner at Euro Crime.

Karen Meek tells me that Petra Hammesfahr's next book to be translated into English is The Lie, translated by Mike Mitchell, due to be published by Bitter Lemon Press in October. I hope that some of her other books will soon follow.

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7 thoughts on “The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr

  1. The Lie sounds interesting from the summary on Bitter Lemon website.
    But The Sinner seems from your compelling review to be a book that needs to be approached in good mood with perhaps a bottle of wine or flagon of beer handy.

  2. Very interesting comments -Maxine.
    Having read all Alvtegen’s novels and also
    the excellent ‘The Sinner’–From my perspective-
    as a psychotherapist–I would say that Alvtegen
    focuses on ‘outsiders’-people dislocated
    from society–without going into causation,
    whilst Hammesfahr–focuses on horrendous
    trauma-and the unremitting consequences.
    Norman is right –a glass or two to hand
    whilst reading the latter is very wise-but
    well worth the read.

  3. Thanks, Simon – interesting to read your comments. I responded strongly to the psychotherapy aspect of The Sinner – the whole book is really an extended psychotherapy session.

  4. This one really sounds compelling.
    And crime fiction with a glas of beer in hand – perhaps I could even persuade my husband that he should try it (but he would probably ask me to translate it into Danish first).

  5. You’ve convinced me (both to read it and to open a bottle first)(not that I needed much cajoling to do the latter).

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