The Other Home was commissioned by Edgar Reitz as working material for the fourth film in his award-winning Heimat series, which was released in German cinemas in autumn 2013. The Heimat films have been well-received among English-speaking audiences, ensuring that this novel would find a ready readership in translation.
The Other Home is set in the fictional village of Schabbach in the Rhineland, close to the Mosel river in the year 1843. It was a time of hardship in Schabbach – with food shortages and a series of brutal winters – when many people found themselves faced with the choice of emigration or starvation, and their religious faith was sorely tested. The narrative focuses on the Simon family: the blacksmith Johann Simon, his wife and their three surviving children. Jakob Simon, the youngest of the three siblings, is the main protagonist. Jakob is a dreamer, a sensitive young man who likes to read about other worlds, and is especially interested in the indigenous cultures of Brazil. He longs to emigrate there and is mocked by his brother and father because of it. When his older, more worldly-wise brother Gustav ends up marrying Jakob’s sweetheart Jette, before emigrating to Brazil himself, Jakob is left doubly bereft.
The action takes place on the day before Gustav and Jette depart from their beleaguered homeland in the hope of a brighter future on the unknown continent of South America. It is a moment of leave-taking in which many family stories start to unravel, and the day of Jakob and Jette’s first and last illicit romantic tryst, outside the cemetery walls. Jakob finally accompanies his brother and Jette to the Rhine port of Bacharach, from where they sail to Rotterdam en route to Brazil. Jakob returns to his family in Schabbach, marries a local girl and takes over his father’s smithy, abandoning his bookish dreams to forge his own destiny. Jette later has a child in Brazil, which could very well be Jakob’s.
The Other Home excels in its subtle portrayal of human dreams and sober realities, and of unexpected twists of fate. It is a book about departure and death, about growing up and generational conflict, as well as about the world of fantasy (‘the other home’) and the temptations of books and reading. Finally, it is a book about broken dreams. Its tightly-wrought, lyrical prose is full of powerful images and metaphors: a beautiful, nearly perfect work of art.