Let me start this review at the very end of the book. In the acknowledgements, Larissa Boehning writes:
After a long phase of working together, Marianne Reil gave me her short stories and notes on her childhood in the Engelwirt shortly before her death, asking me to make them into a novel. She wanted to call it Dosierte Liebe (love in small doses). I am still grateful to her for such a great and trusting gift.
In a way, Boehning’s book takes these luminous anecdotes of a childhood in a Bavarian family inn at the end of WWII as its centrepiece. And yet it is not a historical novel. It opens, in fact, with a false little affair between a woman and her neighbour in present-day Hamburg. Jule works in advertising and Matthias claims to run an online dating platform – so they’re both professional manipulators of the truth. As it turns out, Matthias actually works for an insurance company, but not for long. His last visit – after being sacked – is to a wealthy elderly widow, Annemarie. Annemarie needs someone to help her with things, including trips to the hospital, because she doesn’t have long to live. And Matthias worms his way into her affections in the hope of inheriting.
Boehning read an extract from the novel at the Ingeborg Bachmann competition in Klagenfurt last year. It was probably the book’s most shocking passage, and it was a good illustration of her skill at building up an extremely oppressive atmosphere between the would-be son and heir and his would-be mother. There were times when I felt Matthias was too simple a character, his motivations made overly clear – a domineering mother of his own, a wish to have something to show for himself in the form of status symbols. He’s certainly a love-to-hate figure, but the writer lets Annemarie get her fair share of manipulating done too. She seems to come back to life all of a sudden now that she has someone to take care of, and that adds extra tension. Standing alone, however, this strand of the plot wouldn’t be enough to make Nichts davon stimmt aber alles ist wahr a good novel.
Wisely, then, Boehning gives us Jule, who follows Matthias after he’s disappointed her, and finds out about Annemarie. In an unlikely but forgivable plot twist, the elderly woman ends up telling Jule about her childhood – the Bavarian passages. I love the fact that Annemarie’s whole character is built up around these wonderful anecdotes. The child has a tough mother – called “the general” – who runs the Engelwirt inn with a rule of steel and little but cruelty to spare for her daughter. But there is her father, a butcher, and her grandfather with his tall tales that help her learn the alphabet, and there is hard work. It feels as though Boehning has sat down and thought about how the adult version might be of this curious child who got love in small doses.
I suppose the novel might be all about love and truth. Matthias seems to make a fairly good living after being sacked by running fake dating profiles, paid for by the online platform. As Jule finds out, he sends standard responses to love-hungry ladies interested in his various personae. And Jule herself has occasion to ponder the inflationary use of the word love in advertising campaigns (something I’m guilty of myself here at love german books). In a way, Boehning seems to be telling us, all kinds of love can be manipulative. But the novel is not condemnatory; it ends on a surprisingly positive note.
And I was positively surprised, especially because I fell rather in love with the Bavarian sections but also because I was happy to leave them again for the contemporary plotline, which ticks along nicely. A good book.