Swiss author Sarah Elena Müller’s nuanced debut, Picture without Girl, tackles the subject of child abuse from an unusual and thought-provoking perspective. Written in spare prose that implies more than it tells, the novel blends references to myth and superstition with a modern, cinematic treatment. A multi-disciplinary artist who has already received numerous awards, Müller proves herself an original and noteworthy talent.
In five distinct sections, Picture without Girl follows a young protagonist growing up in rural Switzerland. The unnamed girl is fascinated by television and moving images, but her left-leaning parents, a sculptor and environmental scientist, have a deep distrust of the media and are wrapped up in their own worlds. Unable to express herself, the child seeks refuge at the house of her neighbours, Ege and Gisela. Ege is a technology addict, equally cut off from the real world, while Gisela lives largely upstairs and is often away travelling. Ege allows the child to watch as much television as she wishes and invites her to participate in the films he makes.
Here, darker undertones creep into the novel: child abuse is strongly implied yet never made explicit. Müller’s unemotional language and shifting narrative perspectives draw the reader into the story but keep us in a state of uncertainty, reliant solely on our suspicions. Combined with the main characters’ inability to communicate, and their roles as outsiders in a small Swiss village, this cleverly underscore how easy it can be not to act on misgivings, how perpetrators can bend reality to suit their own stories, and how intervention often comes too late or not at all.
Caught between the literal darkness of Ege’s home and her parents’ insufficient attempts to bond with her, the child barely speaks and begins to wet the bed. Her parents turn to a healer for help, while the child herself begins to communicate with the picture of an angel she finds in a book – the figure comes alive in her mind and allows her to have a voice. Emphasising their alienation from each other, none of the characters aside from Ege and Gisela are named, existing merely as social or familial roles (father, child, neighbour, and so on).
Spanning several decades, from the 1960s to the recent past, Picture without Girl tackles other complex issues including climate change, the conflict between agriculture and the environment, and the responsibility of individuals in society. Provocative and engaging, asking more questions than it answers, Müller’s debut is a fresh and compelling novel worthy of much discussion.
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