You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann

With a life that has been rather chaotic of late, I often enjoy grabbing short books or novellas on the spur of the moment. They are easy to pick up before bed without the weight of a hefty tome or the seeming psychic weight of starting a 400 page novel.

You Should Have Left was just such a book that caught my eye at the local library:

It is fitting that I’m beginning a new notebook up here. New surroundings and new ideas, a new beginning. Fresh air.” This passage is from the first entry of a journal kept by the narrator of Daniel Kehlmann’s spellbinding new novel. It is the record of the seven days that he, his wife, and his four-year-old daughter spend in a house they have rented in the mountains of Germany—a house that thwarts the expectations of the narrator’s recollection and seems to defy the very laws of physics. He is eager to finish a screenplay for a sequel to the movie that launched his career, but something he cannot explain is undermining his convictions and confidence, a process he is recording in this account of the uncanny events that unfold as he tries to understand what, exactly, is happening around him—and within him.

So I grabbed it and read it over a couple of nights of bedtime reading. It turned out to be a creepy, mysterious atmospheric novella. It builds the tension quite well and hooks the reader’s interest with a burst of intensity and then has a sort of melancholy tragic ending.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. Suspense, horror, magical realism?

Kirkus offers some thoughts:

This novel is, in many ways, a classic haunted-house tale. There are warnings about the house from the people in the village below. There’s a creeping sense of horror. There are frightening phenomena that the narrator cannot explain. And there are specters. Kehlmann (F, 2014, etc.) uses all these familiar tropes beautifully. But he also creates a sense of existential dread that transcends the typical ghost story. The relationship between the narrator and his daughter adds a level of anxiety; he has to protect her not just from the house, but also from knowledge of what’s happening. And Kehlmann deserves special notice for recognizing just how uncanny a baby monitor can be. A book to keep you up at night.

The New York Times makes the case for a mix:

“You Should Have Left” lands in a place that is part horror, part science fiction. Time travel, which may or may not be involved, is presented as its own kind of blurred nightmare. If you’re unfamiliar with Kehlmann’s writing, don’t start with this slim, occasionally potent exercise. But if you’re a fan waiting for his next full workout, you’ll find this a pleasantly unsettling way to pass the time.

No matter where you might settle in terms of genre, if you are looking for a creepy, unsettling read with a literary touch, this would be a good choice.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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