Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Portrait of a Girl by Dörthe Binkert, a historical novel of self-discovery and artistic inspiration

The Hotel Spa Maloja, a ritzy venue high in the Swiss Alps, is the scene for life-changing encounters and romantic entanglements during the summer of 1896. In her uneven but ultimately worthwhile second novel, Binkert sets up an interesting convergence of personalities and social classes, with a vast gap between the wealthy hotel guests, there for a health cure or to photograph the views, and the impoverished, proud locals.

The large cast includes a flirtatious Englishman and his best friend, a young woman with bad lungs, a family of mountain farmers, Italian pastoral painter Giovanni Segantini, and a bitchy American socialite who could have sprung from a Jackie Collins book. The main plotline centers on Nika, a mute stranger with striking strawberry-blond hair who endured a traumatic childhood and who’s searching for her true identity. Readers follow her on her journey of self-discovery, which is alternately helped and impeded by the men who fall in love with her.

I found the novel rough going early on. The translation has some odd phrasings for a historical novel (“he didn’t suck up to people”). The story jumped from viewpoint to viewpoint with abandon, and few people felt distinct. Fortunately, after enough time in the clear mountain air, they and their motives began to sharpen, and the reading became smoother. My interest was also piqued after discovering the novel imagines the backstory of a real painting, Segantini’s La Vanità (which looks nothing like the demure image on the book’s cover!).

Binkert is gifted at describing the beautiful Engadine region and evoking her characters’ deep, swirling emotions. Another strong point is her depiction of a master artist at work in his preferred element, outdoors, where he can mix the perfect palette of colors and “capture the harmony of light.” Overall, a good choice for readers in search of thoughtful escapism.

Portrait of a Girl was published by AmazonCrossing, Amazon's imprint for translated fiction, in September 2014 ($14.99/£8.99/$4.99 ebook).  Margot Bettauer Dembo translated it from the original German.  This review, which first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review, was based on a personal purchase via Kindle First.

And here's Giovanni Segantini's La Vanità, below.


  1. Anonymous11:51 AM

    In other words, this isn't HEIDI ;-)

  2. Translation -- so difficult for reader, translator and writer alike. Your insight about that issue is a very important one. I guess we have to simply be aware of the difficulty, as you said so well. So many historical novels are available only in other languages. Understandably so, given the mountains of effort required to properly reflect setting in distant places and past times, and to do the research from documents published in other languages. And only then can the writing begin. But bravo to those writers who make this Herculean effort so that we may benefit from all of their research and understanding, originally written in our language without subjecting us to the vagaries of translation. Tho sometimes the humorous potential of those translations does cause a chuckle. ;) I marvel at writers like Susan Vreeland, whose historical settings are superb. And I applaud translators like Lee Chadeayne who gives us Oliver Potzsch's work with such flair. If only it were easier ...

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Alex.

      I enjoy reading literature in translation since it can open up a world that wouldn't necessarily be accessible otherwise. In the case of this book, the translator may not have been aware that using modern word choices can affect the reading experience of a historical novel... or maybe the original used modern phrasing, too. (I haven't seen the German text.) I've enjoyed the Oliver Potzsch novels I've read but found Chadeayne's translations quite modern and slang-y in places, too.