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FEAR is not Dirk Kurbjuweit’s publishing rodeo. He is extremely well known in his native Germany as a journalist and author of several successful works of nonfiction and fiction, including three novels that have been adapted into feature films. This is Kurbjuweit’s first novel to be translated into English thanks to the efforts of Imogen Taylor. It is a dark and brooding work told in the voice of a possibly unreliable narrator and based in large part on an unfortunate experience of the author.

Randolph Tiefenthaler is the first person voice of FEAR, an architect with a wife named Rebecca, two younger children and a neighbor from hell. He hastens to assure us that he had an ordinary childhood, though his early years were overshadowed by the gloomy façade of the Berlin Wall as well as the moodiness and occasional mercurial temper of his father, who had also amassed a large gun collection. Neither circumstance is particularly unusual. These and other elements of Randolph’s youth are dropped in breadcrumb fashion through a narrative that begins with the Tiefenthalers visiting Randolph’s father in prison, where at age 77 he is 12 months into an eight-year sentence for manslaughter. There are, as they say, extenuating circumstances. These include his advanced age and voluntary confession to killing Dieter Tiberius, the Tiefenthalers’ downstairs neighbor.

"...a dark and brooding work told in the voice of a possibly unreliable narrator and based in large part on an unfortunate experience of the author."

The relationship between Dieter and the Tiefenthalers had started cordially enough, but eventually Dieter began systematically harassing them with inappropriate notes to Rebecca, then escalating into actions that were far worse. Randolph and Rebecca had sought legal remedies but were stymied at every turn. Dieter was cunning enough in his harassment to know just how far to go and when to stop. We learn all of this, and much, much more, throughout the course of the book, as Randolph recounts vignettes that, taken together, paint an occasionally grim picture of his relationship with his wife, father, sister and brother, moving back and forth across the continuum of his life.

The unfounded accusations against Randolph and Rebecca bring them closer together in many ways, but drive subtle wedges into their relationship as well. When the family exhausts their legal remedies, and Dieter persists in his behavior, there appears to be only one solution. As we come to know Randolph, we understand why he does not seem capable of achieving it, so his father must (if indeed he must). It is a story that seems to begin well past its ending, but Randolph tells his tale out of order, and has secrets that he keeps from all but the reader until the novel nears its conclusion.

As a character asks at one point in FEAR, “What’s the point of a law that fails you?” It is a disturbing question without an easy answer. There is another question the book raises that is present throughout, without the reader really knowing it. It’s a final plot corkscrew in a strong and haunting work that is worthy of your time.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 13, 2017

by Dirk Kurbjuweit