Rachel Seiffert

The Dark Room

‘Seiffert’s powerful book resonates with hope, humanity and understanding.  It should be on everyone’s reading lists.’ Sunday Times

 

The Dark Room tells the stories of three ordinary Germans: Helmut, a young photographer in 1930s Berlin, who uses his craft to express his patriotic fervour; Lore, a twelve-year-old girl who guides her young siblings across a devastated Germany in 1945, after her Nazi parents are seized by the Allies; and, fifty years later, Micha, a young teacher, obsessed with what his loving grandfather did in the war, struggling to deal with the past of both his family and his country.

 

Bavaria, early 1945

Lore lies on the edge of sleep in the dark bedroom.  She heard a noise a while ago, fell asleep, then woke again, lying still, with the night wrapped quiet around her, frost-flowers blooming across the windowpane. Lore’s limbs are warm and heavy. She’s not sure now if she imagined it, watching the walls and the window and ceiling unfolding, and beyond them, the room of dreams.

A door slams and the walls are back again, solid along the edge of her bed.

Voices.  Lore is sure now, eyes open, waiting for the crack of light from the hall.  But the house stays dark, and the whispers come from downstairs; she slips out of bed to listen.

-What is happening?

-It will be fine.  The fighting will be over soon.  You will see.’

Vati is here.  In uniform at the foot of the stairs.  Mutti has her arms around him, a soldier stands to attention in the open doorway, and behind him Lore sees a truck parked in the road.  The cold night slips over the threshold, through the banisters, settling around Lore’s bare feet.

They drive for what feels like hours.  Out of the village and into the valley.  Mutti wordless with Vati in the front, the baby asleep on her lap.  No lights.  They drive in the darkness and the engine noise.

Lore sits in the back with her sister and brothers, on top of all their bags.  Liesel sleeps, mouth open, the twins stare at the back of their father’s head.  They are silent, shoulder to shoulder, leg to leg, heads swaying with the motion of the road, eyes glassy with sleep and surprise.  Lore whispers,

-It’s Vati.

And they nod.  Such a long time since they’ve seen him.

They stop in a yard that glitters with frost.  There are people with lanterns, and two large beds in a room that smells of mud and straw.  When Mutti blows out the lanterns it is no longer dark; there is a long window at the far wall and Lore can see her father, his shoulders hunched, a black outline against the grey dawn beyond.  He finds an extra blanket and tucks it around her, and when he kisses her goodnight she smells his sweat, feels the stubble on his chin.

– Where are we?

– A farm.  A safe place.

He whispers.  Lore drifts.

-A good place to sit out these last weeks.

When she wakes again, it is light in the strange room and he is gone.

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