Review: The Other Hoffmann Sister, Ben Fergusson

From the very beginning, we are told that the ‘other’ Hoffmann sister will disappear.  Ingrid is the sturdy one, the sensible one, the one who pays attention to her studies.  Her elder sibling Margarete is far more sensitive.  For Ingrid, the seeds for Margarete’s disappearance were sown when the family first decamped from Germany to South West Africa (modern day Namibia) in 1902.  The Hoffmanns seek to make their fortune, having bought a large plot of land and a big house from the fading aristocrat Baron von Ketz.  Of hazy origins themselves, Herr and Frau Hoffmann have grand plans for their daughters, lording it above their native servants and hoping for an engagement between highly-strung Margarete and von Ketz’s son Emil.  Fergusson manages to strike a highly effective balance between Ingrid’s obliviousness and the tension within her environment – with a protagonist who does not think to ask the questions, or even notice when she is being lied to, how will she ever put the pieces together when disaster finally strikes?

The Other Hoffmann Sister is highly evocative, capturing the era of German imperialism when the aristocracy still had a value and before the devastation of the twentieth century.  Ingrid’s parents believe that they are buying into a world that will never change, that the German supremacy is unshakable.  As the years pass by, we watch as their world crumbles but how their faith is never rattled.  They are proud that Baroness von Ketz requests Margarete’s company once a week, even though Ingrid longs to go too.  Frau Hoffmann is briskly dismissive when Margarete’s unwillingness to go seems to drive the young girl towards a breakdown.  Their iron will will brook no opposition.  The Herero uprising of 1904 claims the life of Baron von Ketz and chases the Hoffmanns plus Emil back to Germany.  The years pass and Margarete finally does become engaged to Emil, fulfilling her parents of making their daughter a Baroness.  For Ingrid, this surely means that she will no longer have to protect her sister, to keep half an eye on her at all times, that Margarete will have a happy ending.  The reader knows better and so we are barely surprised when Margarete vanishes on the eve of her wedding day, presumed drowned in the lake.

Ingrid has spent so much of her time up until this point preoccupied with her own concerns – she frets over Margarete’s tantrums and depressions when they mean that her sister misses out on hearing their book read, or when it disrupts her lessons, but there are other times when she is bafflingly incurious.  Where Margarete has the beauty, Ingrid is to be the clever one of the family, so she is focussed on her lessons and devoted to the housekeeper’s son Hans who teaches her.  It is a strange thing to read a book in English about a German girl studying to learn English.  Ingrid grows up with an ambition to be a translator, working hard on her collection of poems translated from English to German.  This was an interesting linguistic exercise, with Fergusson creating copies of ‘translated’ English poems ever so delicately adjusted to lose their meaning.  Ingrid reads but does not quite comprehend what she sees.  As with her books, so with her life.

The icy ambition of the Hoffmann parents is revealed in their pride in having a Baroness daughter, despite the fact that she had apparently ended her own life mere hours after becoming one.  With her family frantic to bury any suggestion of scandal and then Europe descending into chaos, Ingrid is blocked on all sides in her attempt to get an answer on what befell her sister.  With friends assuring her that Margarete was never strong, that she should let her go, hopes for finding the truth seem destined to fade.  However, when Germany finally admits defeat and Berlin falls into disarray following the revolution, Ingrid and her family flee back to the von Ketz estate for sanctuary and Ingrid tries again to discover what on earth became of the other Hoffmann sister.

With a reader primed from the book’s opening lines to look for all clues, that Margarete is surely doomed, it is at times frustrating when Ingrid herself notices so little.  There are so many junctures when one thinks that surely Ingrid would have asked more questions, but then we remember that the child Ingrid did not have our fore-knowledge.  Fergusson is a very atmospheric writer, summoning up the sticky heat of South West Africa, with the two European girls poorly adapted for their new life.  The chill of a German winter is summoned up when Ingrid starts her true investigation in the immediate aftermath of the war.  However, while this was highly effective, I felt that Fergusson could have spent slightly less time on build-up and slightly more on the plot as at times the action drags a little while we are waiting for Margarete to finally vanish.

In terms of suspense though, I have to admit to have been completely caught up, with the final third definitely the strongest of the novel.  I grew genuinely excited as the clues began to draw together in my mind, staying up far past my bedtime because I was desperate to get to the end – I can’t remember the last time I did that.  Still, even with the final truths revealed, I felt a kind of discontentment.  Was it just the extent to which Ingrid had been ignorant, blind even, to what was going on around her?  Or was it an actual weakness of the novel?  The Other Hoffmann Sister is made of parts which are perhaps greater than the sum of its whole.  It is highly descriptive, evokes the feelings and preoccupations of its time period, the characters are richly varied and the novel has an impressively Gothic central mystery.  It’s just that somehow it fails to quite satisfy – so much of the action has taken place offstage that when we are caught up, the events hold less weight than they should.  Ingrid has been necessarily blank for so long, excluded from the family secrets, that she is a difficult protagonist to engage with.  Despite its many promising qualities, The Other Hoffmann Sister is rather lacking in terms of its flow.

It may seem that I am being overly critical, but with so much about this novel that I found truly gripping, and the powerful way in which Fergusson is able to transport the reader from South West Africa to Berlin to the crumbling von Kertz estate, I do have a feeling that The Other Hoffman Sister is destined to be the sophomore attempt with Fergusson’s career.  He has already impressed with The Spring of Kasper Meier and with this book, he solidifies his reputation as a talented writer and I will look forward to what he writes next.  I just don’t think that The Other Hoffman Sister is destined to be a career highlight.


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The Other Hoffmann Sister by Ben Fergusson
Published by Hachette UK on May 4th 2017
Genres: Fiction, War & Military, Historical
Pages: 448
ISBN: 9781408708910

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