Book Review: ‘Therapy' by Sebastian Fitzek

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By Patrick Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 6, 2009


By Sebastian Fitzek

Translated from the German by Sally-Ann Spencer

St. Martin's. 289 pp. $25.95

Some years ago I found myself in the greenroom of a New York television station, waiting to appear on Pia Lindstrom's interview show. There was another man in the room, a tall, middle-aged fellow who in time came over and asked what brought me to the program. I explained that I had written a book about marijuana and, always affable, asked why he was there. My companion drew himself up to his full height and declared, "Sir, I am the Lindbergh baby!"

I didn't stay to see his interview, but the encounter lingers in my memory as a bizarre example of the enduring power in human mythology of every parent's worst nightmare: the lost child. We read endless accounts of missing children in newspapers, and novelists, too, are irresistibly drawn to these tragedies. In recent years there have been some fine novels on the missing-child theme -- including Stieg Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," Laura Lippman's "What the Dead Know" and Dennis Lehane's "Gone, Baby, Gone" -- as well as many lesser novels by writers who appreciate the power of such material but fail to do it justice.

Sebastian Fitzek's "Therapy" was a bestseller in his native Germany and is being widely translated. It tells of Dr. Viktor Larenz, whose 12-year-old daughter, Josy, is apparently kidnapped when he leaves her alone for a few minutes at another doctor's office. When Josy cannot be found, Viktor's pain and guilt cause him to drink excessively. His wife leaves him, and eventually he has a mental breakdown. Much of the book takes place in a "psychosomatic clinic" where he is telling his story to a psychiatrist. And much of the story he tells takes place at his vacation home on an isolated island where he retreats for privacy but instead is confronted by a mysterious woman called Anna Glass, who brings events to a climax.

It is clear from our first encounter with Viktor that he is seriously disturbed, perhaps insane, and we cannot know if he is telling the truth or is delusional or simply lying. Nor can the reader be sure if various characters, including Anna, exist or are his hallucinations or inventions. She is an attractive woman who says she writes children's books and that her characters become real to her. She describes one book she has started about a girl who vanishes. Viktor becomes obsessed with the parallels between the girl's story and that of his own missing daughter. He pushes Anna for more details, but she resists.

Viktor's friend, the mayor of the island, warns him that Anna is dangerous and may want to kill him. Viktor becomes convinced that she has tried to poison him -- and may even have poisoned Josy. And yet, does Anna even exist? Viktor's private detective can find no record of her. And the scene when the mayor warns she is dangerous is followed by another in which he claims never to have heard of her. Then there is the matter of Viktor's dog, Sindbad. He lies at the doctor's feet while he talks to Anna. Later she denies ever seeing the dog. Then the dog turns up dead, tortured, possibly by Anna. Or did the doctor even have a dog? All these events take place during a terrible storm that presumably reflects the storm inside the doctor's mind.

Ultimately, the novel is less about what happened to the missing child than about whether her father is insane and possibly her killer. Beyond that, it is an exercise in hooking readers and not letting them go. Mysterious events occur and are never explained -- they exist to keep us stumbling forward. Fitzek delights in ending chapters with cliffhanger lines like "Anna's next revelation was more devastating than the first." At one point, Anna tells Viktor that after her father died, she flew into a rage and killed her dog: "After about ten blows I must have snapped his spine. He lay there, howling in agony and coughing up blood, and I battered him to a pulp." Strong stuff, but then she admits she had no dog and made this story up. The imaginary dog-killing by the possibly imaginary Anna is just another way to keep us hooked via cheap thrills.

As a reader, I don't mind being manipulated, but I prefer the process to be a good deal more subtle than this. Where is Josy? What's going on here? The author provides answers at the end of the novel, but I found the explanations far-fetched at best. At worst, I found "Therapy" offensive, for using gimmicks to tart up the most primal of human tragedies. It's rather like, many decades after the fact, having a man on your television show who claims to be the Lindbergh baby.

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