Review of ‘The Hangman’s Daughter’ by Oliver Potzch

Available from Amazon.  Original German publisher Ullstein Taschenbuch.

It’s taken me a long time to read this book.   As its title suggests, much of the writing was bloodthirsty and, as you know, Dear Hangman GameReader, I don’t do blood and guts, torture even less.  To be honest, it wasn’t my ‘cup of tea’, but, fortunately for the world of literature in general, a novel’s worth does not depend upon entirely on what Charlie Britten thinks.

Based in early modern Schongau in Bavaria, the story concerns accusations of witchcraft and the battle of Jacob Kuisl (the town hangman) and Simon (a young physician) to save Martha Stechlin (the local midwife) from being burned at the stake.  It should rightly have been called ‘The Hangman’ because he is the main character and the hangman’s daughter, Madgalena, only has a relatively small part in it.   Although he seems to take an especial delight in describing dirt (mud, filth, sweat and excrement), Oliver has done his research very well, not just into the hangman and witches but in seventeenth century life in general, particularly regarding people’s attitudes to each other and executioners, doctors and midwives and their neighbours in Augsburg in particular.    However, I did feel that he failed to understand how people in the seventeenth century worshipped, allowing one character to say that he doesn’t believe in the devil or the heavenly father;  with the Reformation only just settling, everybody would have accepted both unquestioningly.

Jacob Kuisl is portrayed in a very favourable light; it is difficult to get one’s head around the idea of a nice hangman, definitely on the side of the angels, who tortures but tries not to hurt his victims.   The hangman has a certain Holmesian quality about him, always right, always able to fight his way out of a corner, and, as the novel progresses, Simon develops into a well-meaning but flummoxed Watson.   Magdalena comes across as a sort of pale Elizabeth Bennett – with her petticoats covered in mud at several points.  Apart from Simon, Magdalena, Martha, it is clear that the author has no time for any of the other adult characters.  In the prologue Oliver tells us that he is a descendant of the Kuisl family, but that the story itself is a novel; this, I feel, affected the way he drew his characters, with possibly too much respect and too little complexity.

I read this book in English – obviously.  Lee Chadeayne’s translation from German to English was smooth and natural, to the extent that the reader might be forgiven for thinking that it had been written in English originally.  Certain words and placenames were not translated eg Stadl and Ballenhaus, and, even though I don’t know for sure what they mean (although one can hazard a guess),  referring to them by in English would have taken them out of their seventeenth century German setting.

So, there it is.  The wrong book for me, I think.

On another topic, I didn’t submit an entry to the Mslexia Short Story comp.  As usual, life took over and the story wasn’t finished – not in the sense that I hadn’t written the last few paragraphs, but it wasn’t fully edited.  It still didn’t feel quite right.  Last year, I did submit and I remember posting on Chapter Seventynine (the writing site I belong to) that you shouldn’t waste £10 on a story that’s blatantly not ready.  Here we go again!

No, my  key on’t ork.  Oops!  I meant I’m having problems with my W key.  Computers, eh?  At least, I’m not sharpening pencils, I suppose.

(Image from Wikimedia.)


Enter the ‘Widow’

There it is,  my two-hundred word pen portrait of a widow, on page 42 of Mslexia (March 2014 edition).   It doesn’t state that it is what it is, but I can Traditional widowassure you, Dear Reader, that that was the brief I wrote to.   Of course, vain creature that I am, my piece was the first thing I looked at when I opened the magazine, but then I spotted my tenses in the last line and winced.   They say you should read your work aloud.  Oh yes, Dear Reader, do do read your work aloud.   Or, as a compromise, display it in another font and font size and see how it looks with different line endings.  Another ruse might be to check your work by reading it in print…  Have I got something wrong here?

Maybe I’m looking at it through rose-tinted glasses, but there was a lot of good stuff in Mslexia this month: about writing as therapy, NanoWriMo, writing synopses, creative writing MAs, promoting your blog, writing a best-seller… as well as the inevitable article on self-publishing.  I had subscribed to ‘Writers’ Forum’ for many years and have learned a great deal, but I stopped about a year ago for reasons which can only be described as ‘mixed up’.  I was having a bad writing period and, desperate as I was to improve, I couldn’t bear to read other writers’ advice, because it made me feel worse.  Each ‘how to’ article made me realise how far my own stories fell short.  However, a year on, it was refreshing to read the writer stuff.  I’m ready to learn again.





Not a Lot

How to put people off reading a blog post?  With a title like the above, perhaps.  But it’s true, I’m afraid.  I haven’t been very well this week, off work and too ill to be able to make use of the time to write.  In fact, for most of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and (in truth) Friday, using my laptop gave me a blinding headache, backache, neckache and nausea… but still, like an addict, Dear Reader, I was dragging the thing on to my knee to check my emails, even to mark my students’ work on Moodle, until I fell down on the settee exhausted, aching all over and my stomach heaving.  (Like an addict?  I am an addict.)

However, a bit of good news.  In the middle of the week Mslexia contacted me  about HOW I would like to receive payment for the short piece which I’d written to a prompt and which they had accepted  for the March issue.   Pay me anyhow, please.  It’s just fantastic to be recognised.  Usually, just having a piece placed brings on the cartwheels.  Does that sound professional, Dear Reader?  No, but I expect you have to earn a lot more than I do to be considered a pro.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve started revisiting one of my old stories and considering – possibly – entering it for the same magazine’s short story competition, having vowed last year that I would never do so again, that particular comp being well out of my league etc etc.  Without giving too much away, my story is set in Mostar, Bosnia, with much of the action taking place near the (new) Mostar Bridge, which has been rebuilt after Croatian shelling in 1993 – see the photo below, which is mine (or my husband’s).   I know some writers depend on Google Maps and Google Earth, and I’ve even seen articles in writing magazines advising them to do this, but I never feel comfortable pontificating about places I haven’t visited.

New Mostar Bridge

I keep telling my students that every piece they write must have a beginning, middle (with sub-headings, so I can mark it easily, Dear Reader) and an end, but it’s 11.10 and I haven’t posted the photo yet.  So I’m stopping right NOW!