FLOATING IN MY MOTHER'S PALM
By Ursula Hegi
Poseidon. 187 pp. $17.95
IN Floating in My Mother's Palm, Ursula Hegi draws a series of deft and delicate character portraits of the inhabitants of a small town in post-World War II Germany. There is Trudi Montag, a dwarf who has grown outward instead of upward and who "trades in gossip." The townspeople use Trudi as a bad example for their children: "If you eat your butter with a spoon you'll look like Trudi Montag when you grow up." At the same time, they both fear and are fascinated by her, for Trudi knows everyone's closely guarded secret and will "not let the town forget any of its flaws." There is Anton Immers, who each year wins the competition at St. Martin's Church for the best violets. It is whispered around town that the former butcher frightens the flowers into blooming for him by putting the frailest among them on the cold outside ledge to freeze to death. There is Matthias, the boarder, who is kind and welcoming to the child narrator, Hanna Malter, except for the occasions when his friend Herr Faber visits "with a bottle of wine or a box of chocolate-covered hazelnuts." After these visits, Matthias "always seemed unhappy . . . Sometimes, he'd have a bruise on one cheek or his arm; once, his right eye was swollen shut." Hanna's mother provides an explanation that puzzles the child at the time: "He has made some difficult choices."
Hanna Malter, the narrator whose growing up is chronicled within the novel, is a spirited and appealingly imperfect adolescent. She is curious, sensitive, and caring, but she is also given to saying the wrong thing, to blurting out in moments of rage the secrets she has learned from Trudi Montag. After the housekeeper's son, Rolf, punishes Hanna for playing childishly cruel tricks on his gullible mother, Hanna blurts out the truth of his birth in revenge -- Rolf's father was not killed in the war, he was an already married American serviceman enjoying a fling. In trying to undo the damage she causes by this revelation, Hannah learns a subtle lesson about friendship and her own burgeoning sexuality.
Through her own inquiring -- and with the obliging help of Trudi Montag -- Hanna discovers that everyone in the town of Burgdorf (which translates into "Anytown") has some blemish, either physical or spiritual. In her own family, the hidden secrets are relatively harmless: Hanna's uncle committed suicide; her father was engaged to someone else at the time he met her mother. But the weaknesses of the townspeople and the efforts they make to conceal or gloss over their lapses demonstrate how claustrophobic and petty such a small town can be.
Balancing out this sense of oppression are the strong-willed heroines of the book, women who defy authority and, through their defiance, sustain life. Foremost among these is Hanna's mother, an artist who likes to swim naked in thunderstorms and who "wore her blond hair loose instead of taming it into a permanent or a bun." Hanna herself names the trait that allows one to transcend the confinements of small-town life: recklessness! It is her father's single reckless act -- breaking his engagement to fall in love with a rain-drenched artist who comes late to his dentist's office for an appointment -- that gives Hanna life. It is her mother's recklessness that lets her stand out among people who are beaten down by their restrictive notions of propriety and that lets her stand up to their disapproval. It is Hanna's own recklessness that will allow her to eventually leave Burgdorf behind.
Despite its laudable qualities, I found Floating in My Mother's Palm oddly disappointing. Missing from the book is the very recklessness -- the making of difficult choices -- that its narrator so admires. Each sketch is wrapped up just a little too easily, closing with an inspiring insight, a measured dose of understanding. One feels that there is not much more to the characters than the details and situations doled out by the author -- unlike some literary creations that seem to have a life independent of the page. Hegi uses words extremely well, but the lyricism frequently substitutes for a deeper exploration of both character and the issues that make the Burgdorf of the 1950s (where Adolf Hitler is never mentioned in the history classes) "a town of pretend." There are many images of people floating, dancing or stretching their arms towards the light -- in fact, synonyms for radiance (luminous, dazzling, bright, etc.) abound in the narrative, lest the reader forget for a moment that this is the diaphanous world of memory and possibility. In the weaker vignettes, this carefully choreographed but blinding light-show simply hides the lack of a story.
Finally, the book does not hold together as a novel. Rather, this is a string of impressionistic miniatures of varying quality, loosely tied to each other by sharing a sensibility, place and cast. There seems to be no larger design, and some of the parts threaten to be greater than the whole. The important connections may be somewhere in the sketches, but for now are still floating somewhere in the luminous ether. Like the inhabitants of Burgdorf, Hegi's third book is interesting but flawed.
Tony Eprile is the author of "Temporary Sojourner and Other South African Stories."