“Brilliantly disorienting and as pure-pleasure page-turning as any thriller…Ida Hattemer-Higgins’s tale and talent will haunt you.” —Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
A ferociously intelligent debut novel about a young amnesiac’s descent into madness in contemporary Berlin, and a country wrestling with its dark past.
A young woman named Margaret stumbles one morning from a forest outside Berlin, hands dirty, clothes torn. She can remember nothing of the night in the woods, nor—she soon realizes—anything of the previous months. She returns home to her former life.
Two years later, she receives a letter from a mysterious doctor, who summons her to an appointment, claiming to be concerned for her fate. Margaret keeps the appointment, but when she leaves the doctor’s office, the entire city is transformed. Nazi ghosts manifest as preening falcons; buildings turn to flesh; reality itself wheels.
This is the story of Margaret’s race to recover her lost history—the night in the forest, and the chasm that opened in her life as a result. Awash in guilt, careening toward a shattering revelation, Margaret finds her personal amnesia resonating more and more clamorously with a nation’s criminal past, as she struggles toward an awakening that will lead her through madness to the truth, and to the unanswerable agony of her own actions.
Ida Hattemer-Higgins has written a novel about amnesia—individual, cultural, historical—about memory and oblivion, fantasy and reason, myth and redemption in our time. An unforgettable story from a bold and prodigiously gifted young talent.
Ida Hattemer-Higgins was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. She studied German and Chinese literature in New York, then left the United States in 2001. In the time since, she has lived in Japan, India, and Sweden, and for the past seven years has been a student of literature in Berlin, where she has also worked as a walking-tour guide and translator. She now divides her time between Berlin and Moscow. This is her first novel.
From our Q&A with the author
In many ways, The History of History defies description. How would you characterize its genre? What do you tell people looking for a quick recap?
I’ve always have a hard time figuring out what to tell people when they ask about The History of History on airplanes and at parties. When I was searching for an agent, I didn’t know how to present it, and I fell on my face a few times. Nowadays I’d like to call it an expressionist saga. Reality is physically distorted, but the arc of the plot is structured to be suspenseful, dramatic, and taut. It tells the story of a young American woman in contemporary Berlin who wakes up in a forest without her memory. She returns to the city only to become increasingly bewitched by the Nazi past. The buildings of the city turn to flesh; she’s visited by the ghost of Nazi Magda Goebbels, who killed her six children as military defeat neared. Ultimately this young woman becomes convinced that she herself is guilty of a crime, though she’s unsure what crime it could be. She knows she’s been in love, though she’s unsure with whom–and these suspicions balloon into a true hell. Above all, The History of History is about insoluble guilt, memory, and the wonderful, terrible return of things that are buried.
Part of the book’s richness is the language, which draws from both German and English. How does being multilingual affect your writing?
There are shreds of German in The History of History, but not on the assumption that the reader knows German. The German language is essential to the fierce, Teutonic, high-spirited mood of Berlin. This mood travels in the language even if it can’t be literally deciphered, and it looms over any visitor to the city. That said, in the novel it’s only used at points when the protagonist feels foreign and estranged, when the reader should be dragged through these feelings with her.
I left the U.S. for good in 2001, and even before, I spent time living abroad in China and West Africa. Later I was in Japan, Sweden, and India. I’ve lived in Berlin a long time now. If you count it all up, it’s seven years. I speak several languages—five well, and two less well. I think in German maybe half the time. I find that reality shifts when rendered in one language instead of another. When I grope for a means to express a feeling-image, my mind jumps here and there, and sometimes my first instinct is to put German into a solution that teeters precariously in English. Sometimes I simply borrow from the German language’s poetry, which is striking and beautiful to a non-native speaker. For example, we say ‘frivolous’ in English, a word that has no obvious meaning unless you’ve pre-learned it. The Germans say ‘leichtfertig’ which is literally ‘easily-finished.’ I’ve internalized that sense of it—the concept of someone who finishes tasks too easily. Immediately I have a dream of a woman at a sewing machine, or a man at a piano, standing up with a forced smile of self-regard while the sonata is only half mastered, the dress lacking a zipper. There’s something very touching and sad about that linguistic idea.