Review: The Vision of Emma Blau

This one doesn't qualify as gold.  Not even silver. Perhaps a rather tarnished bronze.

I had high expectations for this novel. I had started Stones from the River a number of years ago and had been captivated. The only problem was, there was a child rape scene coming. And the child in question was telling the story. I find child-rape scenes far too wrenching to be readable at any time. In the first person, this was a doubly insurmountable obstacle. I put it aside, promising myself I would read another of Ursula Hegi's books at a later date.

Well, the later date has come. I have read, all the way through to the bitter end. And was thoroughly underwhelmed. The Vision of Emma Blau is a generational epic, tracing the lives of the Blau family through four generations, centering on the majestic apartment block that the patriarch built, and finishing with the eponymous Emma.  And it was way too much.  It felt like a trip through a museum, where you gaze at an object, read the plaque on the wall, and move on without properly connecting or understanding the significance of what you have seen.  There were any number of elements which could have been the centerpiece of a compelling story, but they were always reshelved after a rather cursory examination. You would expect the vision of Emma that Stefan Blau had years before she was born would have been the unifying theme, seeing as it was the title, but it was too thin a strand to support that weight. The story would have proceeded much as it did without that vision, as it did not drive any decisions or determine any outcomes. Which did not prevent the author from behaving as if it did, without ever convincing me of that.

The book ended, not with a bang, but a whimper, although it was at least a hopeful whimper, as Emma finally takes the first step toward a resolution of her issues. Unfortunately, I found it very difficult to care. I had rushed through too many lives, been teased with too many possibilities.

So the book was essentially a collection of sketches, any one of which could have made a fine story, and none of which were allowed to develop. And it felt like a tragedy. Hegi has great talent, her characters live and breathe, her mastery of English is such that you would never guess it is not her first language, and I almost felt betrayed that the book hadn't lived up to its potential.

Excerpt from page 33
Those nights on the lake had a timelessness about them, infusing Stefan with a feeling of being totally at home, more certain than ever that he'd been meant to leave Burgdorf and come to this very place, and when he would remember those nights as an old man, they would seem to fill years of his life.
By November, when the workmen had erected the massive foundation, Elizabeth lay in a hard-breathing labor that took hold of her for forty-one hours and seized her life as her child pushed through her flesh. While the midwife, Mrs. West, pried the infant's head and shoulders from its cooling grave, Stefan shook Elizabeth's arm and cried out her name as though he believed he could jolt her back into life.

Other reviews
Kirkus
NYTimes
The Introverted Reader

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