‘The Dark Room’

Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room (2001) is made up of three separate novellas. The title of each story comes from the first name of the protagonist: ‘Helmut, ‘Lore’, and ‘Micha’. Although they are different stories they’re thematically related, because they are all about German identity, guilt, and the main character’s inner conflicts.

The first two stories take place during the Second World War, while the third one occurs during the 1990s. All of the stories have a brilliant sense of linear progression, and a gradual shift occurring in the central character’s internal world. In ‘Helmut’ the character’s feelings of guilt (because he is unfit for military service) run in parallel to the devastation of Berlin around him, which he chronicles as a photographer’s assistant. The increasing tension is palpable and culminates in Helmut eventually finding his place in a completely ruined and dysfunctional environment, seemingly unaware that the people around him have changed

In ‘Micha’ a soon to be father becomes suspicions about his grandfather’s role in the war, which might not be as innocuous as he would like to believe. When his suspicions are confirmed he gradually enters an increasingly dark place, questioning his family, human nature, and his own values. Like ‘Helmut’ there’s a sense of impending doom, and a journey into an uncomfortable place, both for the protagonist and the reader.

Rachael Seiffert does a great job at introducing deeply troubling themes while all the time ensuring that there’s enough depth to the characters to ensure that you keep reading. The stories explore realities where everything is complicated. These are in-between worlds where good and bad merge together and it’s a challenge to separate one from the other. It would be easy to judge these characters, but they are always given their space.

The language of these stories is remarkable. It’s simple, with literary flourishes that excite but never get in the way.

The second of the three stories ‘Lore’ follows a group of children wandering through war-torn Germany without adult supervision as they attempt to find their Grandmother’s house in Hamburg. It was made into the film Lore (2012), an emotional and shocking journey portrayed by brilliant child actors. The story in the film has been tweaked slightly, and I think I prefer it, but it’s mostly a faithful adaptation of the written story.

These are three powerfully told stories, each one different in its own way, gripping, and psychologically tense. They explore three troubling and uncomfortable situations, where the protagonists face difficult choices. Due to the subject matter it isn’t exactly a ‘light read’, but it’s a rewarding one.