Fiction Book of The Month: A Whole Life

Posted on 1st January 2016 by Sally Campbell
A remarkable, poetic tale of a life spent in the Austrian Alps

It is remarkable the power of some small novels. To captivate, move and enthral readers with a mere hundred or so pages seems like a spectacular achievement in brevity. But there are, of course, many renowned examples of these perfectly formed diamond-like novels, from The Great Gatsby to Heart of Darkness.

A Whole Life is precisely this kind of exquisite, slim volume. It is the sort of novel that astounds you with just how much it manages to say in so few words. The clean, quiet prose is reminiscent of John Williams’ in Stoner and in fact the two books are alike in many ways, but particularly because they both depict dignified solitude.

The life in the title is that of Andreas Egger. It is a hard, strenuous existence in the snowy Austrian Alps. Egger comes to the valley as a boy, where he is adopted by a curmudgeonly and violent Uncle. After escaping his uncle’s farm, he becomes first a labourer, then an engineer, then a travel guide; he falls in love, marries and is widowed, all in the same, freezing Alpine valley. He only leaves his home once, to write his wife-to-be’s name in flames across the mountains, and a second time, to fight in the Second World War. The novel captures a whole existence because it concentrates on the sharpest, brightest moments of a life.

Pared-down but never plain, Seethaler’s language is a study in skill and economy. He deftly weaves intricate ideas and complicated characters into this entrancing narrative. After reading A Whole Life, your thoughts will be full of Alpine snow and all the many meanings of this astonishing novel. The white space, the room Seethaler leaves for us to imagine, reflects all the more light. This crystallised novel glitters with an irresistible intensity, I have no doubt you will want to read A Whole Life again and again.


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