Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Friedrich Christian Delius, Italy, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting

‘Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman’ by Friedrich Christian Delius


Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 115 pages; 2010. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

It is rare for me to read a book more than once, so it must be exceptional for me to read it three times. But with Friedrich Christian Delius’ novella, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman — which won the 2009 Evangelical Book Prize — that’s exactly what I did. And it got better and better with each read.

The story is a simple one. It is January 1943 and a 21-year-old German woman, residing in Rome while her husband is redeployed on active service in North Africa, takes a stroll from her accommodation — a guest room in an old people’s home run by Evangelical nuns — to a concert at the church on Via Sicilia. She is eight months pregnant with her first child.

During the walk, which takes roughly an hour (a little shorter than the time required to read the novel), she admires the beauty of the Roman streets, thinks about her unborn child, reminisces about her courtship with her husband, Gert, a preacher-turned-solider, and tries not to worry about the future because it is out of her hands and, in her view, up to God’s will.

There is little plot or action of which to speak, because the novel works primarily on the basis that you are inside this woman’s head and privy to her most intimate thoughts. It’s not exactly stream-of-consciousness, but her inner monologue feels incredibly authentic as it leaps about from one subject to the next and keeps coming back to the issues that most concern her — how much she misses her husband, for instance, and how she cannot bear the stares of Italian men wherever she goes.

But during her walk, there’s a real sense that Margherita is trying to come to a crucial understanding of what it means to be German under the Third Reich and how her strong evangelical belief might be blinding her to the harsh realities of war. On more than one occasion she admits that “it was better not to know too much” but she is conscious of the need to pray for victory, although, somewhat tellingly, this is not out of pure national duty, but because it might bring her beloved husband home much sooner.

While she seems alarmingly naive — she believes that “no bombs would fall on Rome, that was certain, it was obvious, the English would not raze the Eternal city”, nor can she understand “why there is not enough bread in wartime, and why it is getting even scarcer” — there’s a real sense that maybe she’s keeping her thoughts in check because to do otherwise might prove too confronting to her sense of national identity.

Indeed, national identify is a recurring theme, as Margherita constantly mulls over her foreignness and the foreignness of her surroundings and the people she meets.

Other themes include her thankfulness — for food, shelter, safety — and her unwavering faith in God. It’s clear she is very religious, but there’s a telling passage, towards the end of the book, where she recalls how her father, a preacher, tried to lead workers, communists and Nazis “away from political ideas and win them for heavenly salvation” . And later still, she comes to realise that the Nazis subverted religious symbols, in particular the eagle of John the Evangelist, for their own propaganda.

For such a “gentle” book there are some very hard-hitting ideas about politics and religion in it.

Of course, I can’t conclude my review without mentioning the book’s “selling point”, which is largely that it comprises one very long 117-page sentence. It’s not quite as off-putting as it might sound, because it is written in bite-sized stanzas, with plenty of commas, to guide your eye. In fact, it has an incredible rhythm, with a gentle, lilting, almost musical quality to it, making it a joy to read.

And finally, if you’ve ever wanted to travel to Rome, this book will have you itching to book your flights. Delius writes so evocatively of its streetscapes and architecture that it feels very much like a love letter to a beautiful city.


Just a reminder that I’m “in conversation with” Friedrich Christian Delius and his translator Jamie Bulloch at the Big Green Bookshop, London, Wood Green, N22 tomorrow evening — Friday September 17 at 7pm — to talk about this book and some of the issues I’ve hinted at in my review. Feel free to come along for an evening of free entertainment (and hopefully not too many uncomfortable sllences) and a glass of wine. But if you can’t make it, and have a question for the author, do leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to ask it on your behalf!

14 thoughts on “‘Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman’ by Friedrich Christian Delius”

  1. i loved this book his prose flow and the way he entered the young womens mind were wonderful ,hope it all goes well tomorrow ,wish I could come but just too far for me to get ,all the best stu


  2. Thanks for the good wishes, Stu.
    And yes, I totally agree: the way he has entered a young woman’s mind, particular a young woman living in the 1940s when women had very limited life choices (ie. they were expected to marry, have children and keep the home), is very impressive. It comes across as a very authentic voice. I believe the character is based on Delius’ own mother, so will no doubt ask him about it to find out more.


  3. I really enjoyed reading your review – so succinct and I can see that you really liked the book. I agree with you that the story is more complex than it first seems. Unfortunately I won’t be able to make it tonight (I’m seeing him talk tomorrow), but good luck and I’m sure you’ll have lots of fun!


  4. What a fabulous review, Kim. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it – I love reviews where the readers passion for the book shines through; it’s very infectious.
    Three times? Wow! It’s that good? I must get to my copy pretty soon then, in that case.
    Good luck tonight x


  5. This sounds fascinating. The whole one sentence thing is indeed a little scary, but I think it might work if you can read the whole book in one sitting, as you say.
    Sorry I missed your talk last night – I’m sure it was great!


  6. I know that you are far too humble and self-effacing to pat yourself on the back, but I will take from Simon’s assessment that your public performance went well — certainly no surprise. Well done.


  7. Cheers, Kevin. I kept thinking of your advice all the way through the conversation: listen and respond, don’t merely read through a list of questions. I think it might have worked. 😉
    (I might write a post about the experience once I’ve had some time to mull it over a bit more…)


  8. I take it you went to the Peirene salon – hope you enjoyed it.
    This book looks quite simple but it is actually very complex, in so many varied ways, not least the fact it is written in the third person and yet it feels like the first person, because Delius gets right into her head.


  9. Don’t let the one-sentence thing put you off. This book is incredibly easy to read… but there’s a lot going on, much more than you think on first impression. It makes for a very rich and rewarding read.


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