Twelve Nights by Urs Faes – atmospheric homecoming

Cover of Twelve Nights by Urs Faes

Twelve Nights is a superbly atmospheric novella of a man’s journey through a snow-laden valley in search of peace and reconciliation. Urs Faes’ tale is a mere 84 pages long yet the emotional depth he conveys is extraordinary.

It’s December, twelve days before Christmas, when Manfred arrives in a town deep in Germany’s Black Forest. He’s returned home after forty years in exile, estranged from his family and his younger brother, Sebastian. The reason for the schism is revealed slowly via snippets of information whose lack of specificity were tantalising. Only in the closing pages do we fully appreciate that thwarted ambition followed by the rejection of love left Manfred so angry and bitter he had committed an act so unforgiveable that a separation from the family was his only option.

But now he’s back and at the inn that overlooks the family farm he learns that during the years of his exile abroad, Sebastian suffered repeated calamities. He has become a solitary figure, a recluse who rarely ventures beyond the farm. The only indication the townsfolk get that he is still alive is the smoke that issues from the chimney at his farmhouse. Manfred hopes his brother will leave his isolated existence once more time and agree to a meeting so they can lay to rest their hostility.

While he waits for his answer, Manfred walks the old familiar trails through the valley, recalling happier times when this was his childhood playground. He and Sebastian had played at hunting among the fir trees and built dams in the local streams; “scrapping and scuffling with each other sometimes, but through it all devoted brothers who loved one another.”

Twelve Nights grabbed my attention from the first page with its image of a man walking through swirling snow towards a valley clothed in grey mist. Almost every page drips with atmosphere, vividly portraying the forested valleys in a way that makes them feel both real and unreal.

… the snow was falling once more, in dense flakes on ths early evening; a creeping dusk blurred the contours, turning the trees into wizened forms, the stream to a taffeta-grey ribbon, the farmhouses to shadowy distorting mirrors.

Adding to the overall impression of other worldliness is Manfred’s recollection that his journey coincides with local legend that this is the time of year when dark forces are released, threatening disorder, peril and misfortune in the community.

His mother so feared the twelve nights between the feast of St Thomas and Epiphany, she surrounded their home every year with herbs and berries as protection against the evil sprits. Her superstitious fears have never completely disappeared in the valley with the regulars at the inn interpreting the heavy snow and icy temperatures as signs that the spirits of the dead are once more on the move.

The setting makes this a highly enjoyable read but I also loved the layer-by-layer way in Urs Faes built the character of Manfred. This is a man who we come to understand has been haunted by feelings of guilt for decades and a deep sense that there is a void in his life. He’s not in good health so this visit home could be his final chance to find peace through Sebastian’s forgiveness.

But as he walks the familiar paths he is forced to question whether that is all he wants. Is he also seeking salvation, the restoration of that part of his soul that has been lost for forty years?

The tone is melancholic but by the end of the tale, we reach Twelfth Night – Epiphany – with its promise of new beginnings. Symbolic perhaps of the reconciliation and a renewed relationship for which Manfried longs.

An evocative and emotional work of fiction that I would not have discovered but for two bloggers whose reviews you can read here: Lizzy @Lizzy’sliterary life and Susan @alifeinbooks.

Twelve Nights by Urs Faes, translated by Jamie Lee Searle: Footnotes

Urs Faes is a Swiss writer, the author of fourteen novels, several poetry collections and a number of plays. He has been twice nominated for the Swiss Book Prize. Twelve Nights was published originally in German in 2018. Jamie Lee Searle’s translation is the first book by Faes to be available in English. It was published by Harvill Secker in 2020 . I can only hope this is not the last of his books to be made available in English.

Twelve Nights is the 43rd book I’ve read as part of my World of Literature project.  It also counts towards the European Reading Challenge 21 hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

15 thoughts on “Twelve Nights by Urs Faes – atmospheric homecoming

  • March 10, 2021 at 9:38 am
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    I’m very pleased to see that you enjoyed this so much. It’s wonderfully evocative, isn’t it? The way the author creates such a strong sense of atmosphere is very impressive indeed. I wonder if we might see more translations of his work coming through in the future, off the back of the reception for this one?

    Reply
    • March 10, 2021 at 9:58 pm
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      I do hope we see some additional translations Jacqui and by the same translator who I thought did a wonderful job of capturing the subtlety of the language.

      Reply
  • March 8, 2021 at 8:06 pm
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    Sounds like there’s a lot to like, all packed into a relatively short read. Thanks for the review.

    Reply
  • March 6, 2021 at 11:39 am
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    I think I read Susan’s review and liked the sound of it then. Now I really must get a copy…

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  • March 6, 2021 at 10:13 am
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    Sounds so atmospheric Karen – one for Novellas in November I think!

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  • March 5, 2021 at 11:58 pm
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    I do love a good novella – and I like the description of the stream as being like a “taffeta grey ribbon”!

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  • March 5, 2021 at 9:08 pm
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    I would enjoy this book I think. The story sounds fascinating and I love books that take place in snow. Must be my Michigan upbringing living through blizzards. So atmospheric. Good review. 🐧🌷

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    • March 5, 2021 at 9:17 pm
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      I know those Michigan snow storms – some of them can make the landscape quite beautiful though of course you don’t have the mountains of Switzerland

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    • March 5, 2021 at 9:17 pm
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      Thanks to you for directing me towards it Susan

      Reply

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