Translated by Jamie Bulloch
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers for every part of the book, up to and including the ending. If you think I’m joking, you’re about to find out.
I feel like I should say that I don’t go into books looking for things to hate about them. This was very much not the case with the Twilight Saga, or with Fifty Shades of Grey or any of the Dan Brown books, but in general I pick books that I have a good chance of liking. Lately, though, I’ve been on a bit of a negative streak and have started an informal list of books I’m glad I didn’t spend money on, which so far includes The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Daughters of the Wild, and The Heart Goes Last. This brings us to Dear Child, which I did like, but not without some issues. Either way, I’m glad I didn’t spend money on it.
Set in modern-day Germany, Dear Child begins with an accident. Thirteen-year-old Hannah arrives at the hospital, accompanying her mother, who has been hit by a car. Circumstances being what they are, the police investigate and conclude that Hannah’s mother may be Lena Beck, a college student who went missing fourteen years ago. The situation is further complicated by the arrival of Matthias and Karin Beck, Lena’s parents, who quickly realize that, while the woman in the hospital is not their daughter, Hannah looks exactly like Lena and is almost certainly their granddaughter. Unable to shake any answers out of the police, Matthias turns to journalist Lars Rogner, whom he alternately berates and assists in his quest to find out what happened to Lena. Meanwhile, the woman in the hospital is identified as Jasmin Grass, abducted four months ago and held captive in a windowless cabin near the German-Czech border until she murdered her abductor with a snow globe. While Matthias flails around, interfering with the investigation and demanding answers, Jasmin tries to recuperate with the help of her ex-girlfriend Kirsten, but her trauma is compounded by the anonymous letters she receives. Hannah and her brother Jonathan are placed into psychiatric care, but, while Hannah does well enough to be allowed to leave the facility and enter her grandparents’ custody, Jonathan does not.
Following a whirlwind that can only be described as a media circus, Rogner takes Hannah from her grandparents’ house, then breaks into Jasmin’s apartment. Matthias follows Hannah, believing she has been abducted by Lena’s ex-boyfriend, and arrives in time to learn that Rogner was the abductor. As with pretty much every literary villain, Rogner is perfectly poised to murder Jasmin, Kirsten, and Matthias and get away scot-free, but he considerately explains himself first: he was genuinely in love with Lena, with whom he had been carrying out a secret affair in the cabin they set up together, but after a while she started pushing him to choose between herself and his wife. He chose her, but by then she’d lost interest and hooked up with her ex-boyfriend again, while Rogner’s wife had committed suicide and taken their son with her. Between his family’s deaths and Lena’s defection, Rogner lost his mind and abducted Lena, keeping her prisoner in the cabin (as one naturally does, apparently…) to recoup his losses as well as to force her to face genuine consequences for her fickleness. When she was safely locked up, he launched a smear campaign against her, regularly publishing articles detailing her life as a drug-addicted party girl. During her time in the cabin, Lena gave birth to Hannah and Jonathan, but was murdered by Rogner when an argument over the health of their newborn daughter, Sara, turned violent. After burying Lena, Rogner started kidnapping other women to replace her, eventually ending up with Jasmin. Following the end of Rogner’s villain origin story, Jasmin manages to distract him long enough to stab him in the gut, killing him.
The rest of the book is somewhat less stabby. Hannah and Jonathan are taken again into state custody, where they receive psychiatric care; Jasmin begins to recover, assisted by Kirsten, with whom she has reconciled; Matthias mulls over the idea of sneaking Hannah out of her current home and taking her far away, but is haunted by Rogner’s assertion that he and Matthias aren’t so terribly different from each other; Lena states, in an epilogue, that she found ways to turn Rogner’s prison against him, and that she still held out hope that she and her children would someday leave the cabin; and Matthias admits that he was, in fact, the person who kept slipping threatening notes into Jasmin’s mailbox when nobody was watching him closely enough. This seems like a good place to say that Matthias is the reason the book lost a star. I may owe Merritt Emmons an apology, because Matthias is officially the absolute fucking worst character I have encountered, maybe ever. He’s not even at the top of the list, he’s in his own little list by himself. Also I keep wanting to call him Walter because for some reason my internal image of him is Walter Evans from SPY x FAMILY (who, all things being equal, I keep wanting to call Walter Kern), but my brain being a mess is a topic for another several hundred posts.
Look, I feel for the guy. He’s spent fourteen years looking for his daughter, and he’s never gotten any answers. That’s going to make anybody antsy. The problem is that he actively interferes with the investigation and shares information with the media while in the same breath shouting that the police are incompetent idiots. He becomes obsessed with Hannah but barely seems to register Jonathan’s existence, presumably because Hannah is a carbon copy of Lena and Jonathan is not. He is the very picture of a doting grandfather when he’s interacting with Hannah, which tells me that he can behave himself when he wants to, but he is abrasive to his wife and dismissive of Jasmin’s trauma. He sends her threatening letters with no regard for her well-being and regularly demands that she be interrogated – his word – by the police, because he is convinced that she is hiding something and even seems to blame her a little bit for surviving when Lena did not. There’s a certain point where this stops being understandable. When he gets called out for getting in the way of the police who are literally trying to do their jobs, his default answer is either “Somebody had to do something” or “Haha, sorry.” At the very end, Jasmin kindly decides not to press charges against him for the letters, which also bothers me because I would’ve sued the shit out of him. (Matthias’s response to getting found out? “Haha, sorry.”) He’s supposed to be a loving, tormented father, but in the end he just comes across as a stupid, obnoxious old man.
To be fair, the rest of the cast isn’t exactly such stuff as dreams are made on. With the exception of Hannah, they’re all either awful or unmemorable. Hannah may actually have been my favorite character. She reads a lot and in fact seems to have swallowed an entire encylopedia, so she’s a walking bundle of facts, but she is also very clearly still a child, with a child’s perspective. Throughout the book, she refers to shouting as using her “lion’s voice,” which is adorable even if it was taught to her by her POS kidnapping father; and, because she is intelligent and she thinks differently than most (and, if we’re perfectly honest, because she is her grandfather’s granddaughter), she has a bad habit of assuming that anyone who can’t follow her train of thought is an idiot. She is at once deeply endearing and profoundly irritating, but, well, she’s thirteen. I could relate.
Jasmin, on the other hand, was somewhat more difficult to connect with because there was an awful little voice in the back of my mind that kept whispering that Kirsten could do better – not because of Jasmin’s trauma, but because of her reaction to Kirsten’s. Sometime before the events of the story, Jasmin and Kirsten were living together, but their idyll was disrupted when Kirsten was raped in the courtyard of their apartment. Jasmin, half-asleep at the time that Kirsten came home, only managed a supremely unsympathetic “Why didn’t you fight back?” when she learned what had happened. Somewhat unsurprisingly, their relationship never recovered from this, leading to their break-up. And yet after all that Kirsten still comes back, even though it sounds like Jasmin wasn’t really there for her when she needed her most. I don’t hate Jasmin. I’m glad she has someone to help her navigate her post-traumatic care. I’m really glad she got to stab Rogner because if anyone got to kill him it absolutely should’ve been her, but I wish the book had done more to either address or fix the discrepancy between the amount of work she and Kirsten put into their relationship.
The book lost another half-star because I really did not like the ending, which was a lot more victim-blamey than I was expecting. Throughout the book we are given the impression that Lena was a loving daughter and a straight-A student who kept her nose clean and definitely never did drugs, but it is revealed at the end that she was in fact a spoiled party girl who got bad grades, took advantage of her doting father, and didn’t want to do anything even remotely resembling work. Jasmin, meanwhile, confesses that she was planning to disappear dramatically after failing to get back together with Kirsten, for no other reason than to give Kirsten a scare. What a way to treat a so-called best friend who has just suffered a major trauma. Her fake disappearance was thwarted, however, by her genuine disappearance, which took place after she ran into Rogner at a bar and bought him a drink. One thing led to another, and, after she’d sat on his lap and whispered that she wanted to go back to his place, he apparently took this as an invitation to conk her on the head and lock her up in his cabin. There’s almost a winking suggestion that she, and Lena before her, opened the door to a kidnapper and told him to make himself comfortable. Tee-hee, guess they should’ve known better! Except that there was no earthly reason why they should have, because I can guarantee that no woman goes to a bar expecting to wake up in a windowless cabin with two children she didn’t give birth to. What is the message here, then? Women shouldn’t go to bars? Women shouldn’t buy drinks for strange men? There seems to be no end to the list of things we shouldn’t do.
I’m all for giving female characters agency and complex motives, but this really did not sit well with me. For a book that tries so hard to correct victim-blamers, this was not a good move. I could have accepted that Rogner abducted Lena just because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time and he thought she was pretty. I could have accepted that he chose Jasmin as the next Lena because she happened to look similar, and not because she told him that she wanted to go home with him. None of this is outside the range of human behavior. I didn’t need Lena to be a flighty rich girl, or Jasmin to be a flighty drama queen looking to get some undeserved sympathy from her ex. While the responsibility for the abductions does fall on Rogner, as it absolutely should, I am uncomfortable with the implication that Jasmin and Lena were in some way responsible for leading him on. I agree that they made some bad choices, but those choices are a distraction. The plain fact is that Rogner abducted several women, locked them up, and abused them in every way possible. The choices made by the women in the lead-up to their abductions are irrelevant. In the epilogue Lena reclaims some of her agency, and I really respect the hell out of that, but by then it was too little too late.
Ultimately, I did enjoy the book, disappointing ending notwithstanding. It was definitely absorbing, and it kept me hooked all the way to the last page. I actually finished it in two sessions over the course of two days, which would’ve been one if I hadn’t had work the next day. Matthias’s sections were infuriating and I was kinda sad that his heart problems never led to anything if you really want the truth, but the book moves quickly enough that he wasn’t too much of an obstacle. Unlike with Evelyn Hardcastle, which has no reread value for me, I would consider rereading Dear Child to see what I missed. I just wish it hadn’t felt such a need to validate a violent kidnapper for the choices he made.