You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann

You Should Have Left, by Daniel Kehlmann and translated from the German by Ross Benjamin, is a novella about a screenwriter who retreats with his wife Susanna, who happens to be an actor, and their four-year-old daughter Esther to a remote mountain property. The idea is that he can concentrate on finishing the sequel to an apparently successful comedy film that he's best known for having written.

It's clear from the start that the couple's marriage has its problems, and the narrator seems constantly an edge. He's nervous about driving on the steep mountain roads, and uneasy in the company of Susanna, who seems rather distant. And what, exactly, is he actually writing? Ostensibly, the novel we're reading is supposed to be his notebook, but there's precious little of the film he's meant to be writing and a lot of anxious, paranoid notes - some of which almost seem to have been added by someone else. Moreover, why does the house seem to have such a confusing layout? Why do pictures appear on the walls where none were hanging before? Why do corridors suddenly seem impossibly long, and doors lead back into rooms that our screenwriter has just left?

As you can no doubt tell, You Should Have Left is a tense, claustrophobic tale with certain echoes of The Shining (the narrator's wife even mentions that it reminds her of 'that good movie based on the not-so-good book ... the one with all the Steadicam shots'). As the screenwriter's already fragile mental state deteriorates - even before the house starts to get under his skin, he's concerned that his fear of driving will make him 'someone who can't cope with everyday life' and his agent is clearly concerned about his output - the story becomes more and more unnerving. Is the narrator's mental state responsible for his terror of the house? Or is the house really as malevolent as he believes?

This is an intense, unsettling read that reminded me a little of the work of Iain Reid, whose novels Foe and I'm Thinking Of Ending Things I've previously reviewed. I think perhaps the translation is slightly awkward here and there, but overall this short, slightly tale, told in fractured, unstable prose, is a cleverly-written story in which you won't quite be able to tell how much of the horror is in the narrator's head.