What Concerns Us

What Concerns Us is Laura Vogt’s second novel and her first published in English translation. Her translator Caroline Waight has done an excellent job of maintaining the poetry of Vogt’s story of three women.

I was offered the opportunity, by the publisher Héloïse Press, to read and review Vogt’s novel ahead of publication in August, as I’d loved Erica Mou’s Thirsty Sea. I was intrigued by the description of the novel as “A book without filters, a blunt depiction of pregnancy, sex, maternity and relationships through the lives of three women.”

I initially read the title of the novel with a stress on the word ‘concerns’, thinking that it would be about the thoughts and feelings of the three women whose stories it tells. It is about that, but as I became immersed in the intertwining narratives, I realised that the stress was more significant on the word ‘us’. Vogt explores relationships in What Concerns Us; mother and child, sisters, romantic partners, and most importantly the self.

A content warning: the book depicts a rape, which informs some of my thoughts in this review. I’ve prefaced that part of my review with CW so anyone who might find the content distressing can avoid it.

The story concerns three women: each of them mothers as well as daughters. It considers how women feel, often in private, when they become mothers – the expectation they feel placed on them, the loss or sacrifice of self, the rejection of a child or an enchantment by it. It questions whether the way a person sees themself is ever totally true, or whether a person has a story about themself that they seek confirmation of from the people around them. We all have blind spots about ourselves, and sometimes the way others see us can feel shocking and disorientating.

In a family where the father is absent and the mother wounded by that, the novel also explores the far-reaching consequences of paternal abandonment and maternal sacrifice.

What Concerns Us opens with Verena washing her hair with a mixture of egg yolk and cognac. She has recently grown her hair out, we are told, but the passage ends with her hair washing away down the plughole in tufts. It is easy to read this as symbolic of a specific illness and its treatment, but I sensed another symbolism embedded in this passage, one that I couldn’t work out. Something around hair and outward expressions of femininity, perhaps, where the loss or removal of hair signifies a loss or removal of the perceived feminine self.

Verena is a distant character at first. In Part One of the novel, we see her through the eyes of her daughters Rahel and Fenna. Each daughter has a very different relationship with their mother. We see Rahel’s perception of who her mother is and has been to her, contrasted with how Rahel views her mother’s relationship with Fenna. We hear from Fenna her perspective on Rahel distancing herself from Verena, her memories of their joint childhood, and how different her memories are from Rahel’s. The things Rahel remembers about her childhood relationship with her mother suggest psychological abuse, in the form of a coldness and a distance, alongside the cruel things Verena says to Rahel about how her father didn’t like her. Fenna remembers Verena trying her best, showing tenderness, caring for them both.

Rahel and Fenna’s father Erik walked out when Verena was pregnant with Fenna and Rahel was very young. For Rahel, the experience of briefly knowing her father has left her with an expectation that men leave at the first demand for responsibility. This influences the way she behaves in her relationships with men. For Fenna, he is a person who didn’t really exist in the first place. Fenna seems more carefree than Rahel.

When we first meet Rahel, she is pregnant by a man who left her as soon as she told him she was pregnant. She is a singer-songwriter who has tried the conventional route through life of training for a career and taking steady employment in exchange for a steady income, but the songs wouldn’t leave her alone. Her life has been one of taking casual work to support her in creating her music. Her imminent motherhood triggers a determination in her to abandon herself to the pursuit of raising the child. Satisfaction of her musical self falls by the wayside.

She meets a writer at a literary event and engages him in conversation. Soon, they are sharing his house as friends, in a mutually beneficial arrangement. After Rahel’s son is born, her relationship with Boris becomes romantic and they have a child together, a daughter. Convinced during her pregnancy that she would have another son, Rahel is plunged into post partum depression when her daughter is born. Vogt writes Rahel’s experience with such compassion and feeling that it is hard not to wonder whether she has experienced the same. I’m not a mother, but Vogt made Rahel’s feelings tangible to me, from her shock at the child’s gender triggering an inability to bond with her daughter to her sudden sense of needing to pull herself together and act out the ideal of motherhood. I found Vogt’s storytelling powerful, her language a cradle for Rahel’s pain.

Fenna is happier in her skin than Rahel. Described by her sister as a free spirit, she is reluctant to commit to a long term relationship for different reasons to Rahel, choosing brief liaisons with both men and women. Until she meets Luc. On the face of things, she has a good relationship with her partner, but there are hints of darkness beneath the surface, and it’s a darkness that both attracts and repels Fenna. Following an incident between them on holiday, she begins to question her relationship with Luc, in particular the role of consent within it.

CW – the next paragraph makes reference to rape.

On a weekend hiking trip, the reader learns something about Luc that Fenna has understood over the course of her year-long relationship with him. He has very particular views about the differences between the sexes. At best, they are chauvinistic, but his response to Fenna flirting with him in a remote section of their walk suggests that he is a misogynist. He has been ignoring Fenna for the duration of the walk, and lets loose a comment about women being chatterers. To try to bridge the silent divide between them, Fenna flirts. Luc’s response is to grab her and kiss her roughly in an attempt to assert his dominance over her. When Fenna pulls away, attacking him physically in the process to make him stop, he grabs her bodily, drags her off the road, and rapes her. Vogt doesn’t pull her punches in describing the rape. During it, Fenna screams and chooses to go limp in order to endure, because Luc’s strength is too great for her to escape. Afterwards, it is clear that Luc has not understood that he has raped Fenna. His belief is that, because she didn’t physically resist or verbalise her refusal, she was consenting. I found the scene a difficult one to read. I haven’t been raped, but I have been in similar situations where men have misunderstood something I have said or done, or perhaps read into my words or behaviour something that wasn’t there, and physically assaulted me as a prelude to sex. I was lucky that I had my spoken refusal heard and that I could physically remove myself from their grip. Fenna realises that Luc isn’t going to stop, and responds in the best way she can to minimise any further harm. Afterwards, when Luc is surprised that she names his assault as rape, something he says about the way she responded makes her question her reading of the situation. “Did you see me joining in?” she asks him. “I didn’t see you struggling,” he replies. As a result of this exchange, Fenna examines their relationship and questions whether she did consent by not verbalising her ‘no’, even questioning whether her scream was pleasure rather than fear. She effectively apologises for Luc’s ‘maleness’, excusing it as the result of socialisation, and wondering if biology also had a part to play. I struggled with this. No matter a person’s biology or socialisation, if their roughness during sexual contact elicits screams or physical passivity, regardless of whether the word ‘no’ has been said or not, checking the other person consents should be part of the contact.

Consent is a big part of relationships and is often taken for granted by one party or the other. Vogt’s handling of it in the novel is both challenging and sympathetic, a bold plot line that feels necessary. The outcome of the rape is that Fenna reshapes the relationship on her terms, with things seemingly back on an even keel until she realises she is pregnant and Luc reacts badly to it. Fenna leaves him to think about whether he wants a relationship with her and the baby, heading to Rahel’s house.

In the weeks before her sister’s arrival, unsettled and afraid that her relationship with Boris is unravelling, Rahel dreams of a house where she can be alone. She dreams that her father is hidden inside the house, like a Daddy Longlegs. She dreams that her mouth is stitched closed and that her voice when she sings is drowned out by her daughter’s crying. Waking one day from one such dream, Rahel walks out of the house, through the forest and catches a bus and then a train so that she can be away.

Part Two begins with the arrival of Verena and her partner Inge at Rahel and Boris’s house. Inge is dropping Verena off so that she and her daughters can spend time together. Gradually, they begin to talk, to share truths with each other. Rahel opens up about her post partum depression, her inability to accept her daughter, her fear that Boris is going to leave. She and Verena talk about Erik and his leaving. It struck me that, as a child, Rahel was grieving the loss of her father, but Erik wasn’t dead and the pain his abandonment of her caused Verena meant she couldn’t talk to Rahel about him. It would have been simpler had Erik’s absence been due to his death. Mother and daughter could have shared in remembering him. Instead, Rahel experienced a loss akin to a death, while Verena experienced something more pointed and anger-inducing. With the passage of time and the impact of her breast cancer diagnosis, Verena has found a new honesty, and she talks to Rahel about how her relationship with Erik was partly her attempt to deny her true sexuality. If her parents couldn’t understand why she and Erik were unmarried and bringing a child into the world, they would not have understood Verena being a lesbian. Verena only fully acknowledged it herself in the moment she first saw Inge.

The sisters try to grow closer, and Fenna attempts to explain to Rahel her choice to stay with Luc. She describes it as pity for the position he is in: the expectation of being a particular way when you’re a man, and the way it forces some men to deny other aspects of themselves for fear of appearing weak. She skirts around the reason why she took control of her relationship with him, unwilling to name it as rape to Rahel, choosing to downplay it. Rahel wants to know more, but chooses to “let the questions she wanted to ask her sister burst like bubbles on the water.”

In flashback, we learn what Rahel got up to during her absence. In trying to recapture her life before her children, she returns to her former flatmate and fellow musician in Zurich. In talking to Maya, though, she realises that her life has changed too much, that her children are necessary to her, that she was wrong to cast off writing songs. Part Two is interspersed with texts written by Rahel as she tries to re-embrace her songwriting self.

While I was reading the novel, I read a magazine article that chimed with this, about people who do things to appear significant, in pursuit of success, and people who do things for the joy of it, in pursuit of fun. It made me think that Rahel needed to do things for the joy of them, not because she had applied a label to herself. She needed to be Rahel. She needed to have fun. Don’t we all? Since my treatment for breast cancer, I have been thinking a lot about this; about the modern expectation to always be working, to be a brand, to curate a life in public on social media, to have a purpose behind everything, from the books we read and the tv we watch to the holidays we take and the issues we embrace, and on and on and on. It seems to be fuelled by a fear of being found lacking or of our lives being irrelevant. But who decides that? Who judges what it is to be relevant? Isn’t it enough to do something because you enjoy it? Rahel seems to have lost that, or to have not been tuned into it. Fenna seems to have a better grasp on it.

Finally, during a conversation round the dining table, eating pickles, pesto and preserved fruit, drinking schnapps, the three women share memories, tell stories and speak frankly about sex, desire, the reclaiming of words that describe the female genitalia. Rahel is the one who benefits the most from this openness, reconciling with Verena and choosing a new future for herself.

Part Three rounds off the story with passages from Rahel’s notebook. She is Rahel again, rediscovering what that means.

I really enjoyed this novel. Vogt’s writing and Waight’s translation of it is rich in descriptive beauty, evoking inner and outer landscapes and capturing the work involved in being a woman, a daughter, a mother. I particularly appreciated Vogt’s understanding of how women often curtail their full selves in relationships, accommodating the stronger personality, casting off things that matter to them without any similar compromise on the part of the other person, each party socialised to do so. I also appreciated how Vogt depicts the struggle of depression, both the struggle for those outside the depression to connect with the person experiencing it and the struggle for those within it to communicate what they are experiencing. I was frustrated by Boris’s response to Rahel’s depression, but also understood it, just as I understood and was frustrated by Rahel, locking herself away from people who wanted to help her.

There is much in What Concerns Us that needs to be acknowledged more openly in social discourse, and Vogt’s frankness in writing about consent, post partum depression, misogyny and the complexity of relating to others against a backdrop of presenting a strong front to the world is a valuable contribution towards meeting that need.

The small card that came with my review copy reads, “With love from the Vogt team”, and love is at the heart of the novel. What Concerns Us is published on 4 August 2022 and is available for pre-order from the publisher now.

Read 15/06/2022-19/06/2022

Rating 5 stars

3 thoughts on “What Concerns Us

  1. Clearly a difficult novel: what is negative and traumatic can’t be ignored or skated over but the ability to discuss it in a safe space with others who have suffered similar or related hurts can bring some healing. I agree about the “Us”, and that includes those — in particular men — who need to take responsibility for the hurt or, if not responsible, understand and help mitigate the hurt that’s caused.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Difficult, yes, Chris, but so beautifully written that, even if you haven’t directly experienced what it talks about, Vogt communicates both the impact and the healing to make it understandable. In creating a safe space for her characters, she also creates a safe space for the reader. It really is a remarkable work.

      Liked by 1 person

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