I’ve read both of Marlen Haushofer’s other books translated to English; the brilliant and her most famed work The Wall; and The Loft, a subtler but disturbing work. Nowhere Ending Sky is the only other of her translated works and is a much more joyful book than the other two, dealing with the childhood of a clever and imaginative girl, Meta. We meet Meta when she is quite small, on a day when she has been imprisoned in the water butt for being naughty (being naughty happens a lot). It is a punishment, but we quickly learn that what is punishment to others is opportunity for imaginative exploration for Meta:
“Meta opens her eyes wide, and the blue seeps until them. She keeps them open until she is fat and swollen with colour and the sky is drained pale. It is a slightly scary game: it could easily be that the sky doesn’t like having its colour taken away. So she closes her eyes and send the blue back to where it came from. This is hard work and makes her feel tired and empty. When she finally opens her eyes again the sky is once more a deep bright blue. She feels safe and happy, lying there listening to the whisperings of the old rain butt: she doesn’t understand them, but she knows the barrel is telling her stories.”
The book follows Meta’s story as she grows up in her valley somewhere in Austria. Her father is a forester, her mother a former maid and manages all the domestic tasks. Meta is their eldest child; a short read into the book and she is joined by a brother, Nandi, who becomes Meta’s part time playmate. But this is very much Meta’s story. It is seen through her eyes and her imagination, though the book is written in the third person omniscient form – we see Meta from the outside and inside. On occasion this is jarring, but overall it allows us to immerse in Meta’s world.
Little happens in Meta’s valley, but the key to the story is Meta’s imaginative and practical world. Meta is a bright child, clever and insightful. She does not fit the mould of a ‘good girl’. Much of her time is spent fighting with her mother, with whom she has a rocky and difficult relationship. Meta is wilful, smart and determined. None of these are traits that her mother admires. Yet Meta is able to empathise with her mother’s position, she feels no rancour on coming to understand that Nandi, who is malleable and plays with dolls, is the preferred child. Her relationship with her father is much better, there is a clear kinship there and her father is largely unable to (unwilling to) punish Meta for her many transgressions. Instead he encourages her to read, he plays and tells her stories. There is a reverence there which is unmistakable.
The strongest part of the book is Meta’s imaginative and explorative voice. She is curious and unafraid of many things (except the ghosts which come to claim her at night). She has difficulty in distinguishing between memory and dream, another trait which gets her into trouble, and she is always trying new things like here when she imagines what it would be to have never been born:
“What can it be like, never to have been born? She closes her eyes tightly, shuts down as many senses as she can – sight, taste, hearing – and remains motionless. But she is still there: her tummy rumbles, her heart beats and there is a red sort of curtain affair behind her lids. She must make herself smaller, shut herself even tighter. Rolled into a ball, her mouth pressed against her knees, she does her best to achieve a state of never-having-been-born. The red behind her eyelids fades, her arms and legs go numb, her tummy falls silent and her heartbeat slows. She has never been born. There is nothing uncomfortable about not being in the world; you don’t feel anything at all.”
The writing is absorbing and transfixingly beautiful. There is not much to the story, not much of a story at all. Instead we are deeply immersed in Meta’s growing up, the things that trouble and disturb her, her observations, her family and the various goings on in her little valley. It is very convincingly written from a clever child’s eye view. For anyone who has read The Wall, there are familiar elements here and it is clear that Haushofer has drawn on her personal experience to write this book and used elements from this to populate The Wall. The valley is quite familiar, the focus on domestic and agricultural chores: haymaking, livestock care, a self-sufficient world. These are all important factors in The Wall, but expressed so much more pleasantly here and with more joy and without the sinister overtones which flow through the other book.
Nowhere Ending Sky is a very beautifully written and pleasant book. I found myself entranced with Meta, with her troubles and her small joys and her difficulties in fitting in with what was expected of her. A word of warning, though. If you are put off by books without chapters, with very few breaks in the text and no separation of dialogue (such as there is, there isn’t generally much), then be warned. Haushofer’s works are generally walls of endless text and can seem a bit daunting. In The Wall this helps to create an oppressiveness which is very fitting with the book. Here it could be offputting, except that the lightness of the story helps to carry it off. In the end I found this a sweet and magical read, I felt at home in Meta’s little valley and happy to have shared her journey towards adulthood.
Nowhere Ending Sky is published in UK by Quartet Books