Review by Walter Cummins
Throughout most of Kat Hausler’s novel very little is known about the young woman called July, especially by Simon Kesler, who is by far most invested in finding out. He considers her a stalker, prominently up front in the crowds attending the performances of his three-person group, Hare vs. Hedgehog, in his home city of Berlin and beyond. When she is not present, she sends him constant messages. She doesn’t bombard Micha, the drummer, or Katja, the bassist, just Simon, who writes the songs and sings them with his guitar accompaniment. July’s presence and overbearing attention really disturbs him: “He didn’t mean to look, but there was something magnetic about the intensity of her gaze.” He becomes fixated on who July is and why she seems to be so obsessed with him. Simon even feels threatened by her.
In contrast to the scant information about July, Simon’s thoughts reveal a great deal about him, primarily what he thinks about himself: “He carried loneliness within him like a child, careful of it, hampered by the extra weight. But instead of coming to term, it shrank and swelled as the opportunity arose, not a new life but a drain on his, a homegrown parasite.”
The central paradox of the novel is that while almost nothing is known about July and Simon’s circumstances and his inner life are revealed fully, the real Simon is also a mystery. The novel could also be titled What I Know about Simon. As much as July is a blank slate to him, one he is driven to fill in, he is also seeking his own identity: “But he felt insincere and shabby, careful not to let his cheap mask fall off in front of everyone.”
Essentially, he believes that he is playing a role with no awareness of the person behind that role, as if there is an emptiness when he isn’t performing onstage: “And when he was himself, Simon Kemper without a guitar or mic, surprise, surprise, women didn’t throw themselves at him.”
Earlier, before the time of the novel, in an impulsive attempt to find a reality for himself, he pretended a drug addiction to get into a rehab facility where he was the only patient not suffering from withdrawal. In fact, he used the solitude to write the songs for his group’s first album. Yet he was just putting on a performance.
As a strategy to distance himself from July, he has his sister find a young woman to attend his concert in Hamburg, pretending to be an Asian girlfriend named Mei. The real person is named Sophie, and she is beautiful. Simon falls for her, but he really knows as little about her as he does July.
Yet some people care about Simon, seek him out, and find him appealing, including his sister Franzi, his bandmates, and Soledad, the co-worker in a coffee shop where he earns money when he is not performing. There must be a self he can’t see for himself.
The plot of the novel turns when July apparently disappears on a night in Amsterdam where Simon is drugged at a party and later awakes to find himself covered in vomit on the bed of his hotel room. He suspects July administered the drug, but she is nowhere to be found. Fearing that she is dead, he plunges into a quest hoping to discover her alive, first cooperating with the Berlin police and eventually with the help of Soledad. This effort gives Simon an actual purpose, one that leads him to take risks to discover the complex truth of July’s life, the reason for her stalking, the truth about several people around him, and the core of his identity: “Finding her had become so intertwined with finding success, love, ways to feel good about himself, that he could no longer picture any kind of good life where he didn’t know what had happened to her.”
While the mystery of July and the steps to know her reality make an exciting story, Kat Hausler’s more essential achievement is the creation of a character with the complexity of Simon Kemper.