Twelve Nights by Urs Faes (tr. Jamie Lee Searle)

First published in German in 2018, Twelve Nights is the first work by the Swiss writer Urs Faes to be translated into English. It’s a beautiful, atmospheric novella set in the midst of the Black Forest during the dark, eerie period between Christmas and Twelfth Night. A lovely wintry read, exquisitely produced by Harvill Secker as part of their ‘Leopard’ series of translated literature. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.)

As the book opens, Manfred is trekking through the snow, returning to the village of his youth after an absence of forty years. A longstanding feud exists between Manfred and his younger brother, Sebastian, who effectively inherited the family farm back then, despite his lack of aptitude or training for the role.

At the time, Manfred felt betrayed by his parents’ and brother’s actions, prompting a dreadful act of revenge which still haunts him to this day. Also relevant here is Minna, the love of Manfred’s life, who went on to marry Sebastian as a consequence of this sequence of events. Minna is no longer alive; but once again, her presence hangs heavy over Manfred as he seeks some kind of redemption – ideally a reconciliation – with his brother.

There is a timeless feel to this haunting, dreamlike novel that draws on elements of folklore and superstition to augment the shadowy atmosphere. The period between Christmas and Epiphany is rumoured to be one of peril, where dark forces and spectral figures have the potential to usher in disaster. As Manfred makes his way across the landscape, he is reminded of his mother and her time-honoured rituals for banishing evil spirits.

She would put juniper berries in the incense burner, adding fir and spruce needles, an activity that seemed to calm her, as though it gave her stability and certainty. No misfortune could strike her then, neither her nor her family (p.8)

Underpinning the narrative are themes of loss, regret, and the possibility of reconciliation. While the overall tone is nostalgic and melancholy, there are glimmers of hope amidst the heartache as Manfred hopes to reconnect with his brother.

The prose is spare yet evocative, perfectly capturing the magic of the natural world at the mid-point in the season.

Outside, through the window, the snow was falling once more, in dense flakes on this 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. The street could no longer be seen in the leaden gloom, which was tinged blue towards the forest, black down into the ravine. (p. 11)

This is a wonderfully atmospheric read for a dark winter’s night, one that will likely resonate with anyone who has loved and lost at some point in their life. There is a degree of ambiguity to the ending that might frustrate some readers, particularly those who like a tidy resolution to events; nevertheless, the mood conveyed in the story is likely to endure.

35 thoughts on “Twelve Nights by Urs Faes (tr. Jamie Lee Searle)

  1. roughghosts

    This sounds like such an evocative read. Unfortunately it is not out here until later this month. Sounds like it might be one to put away and read next Christmas—then again, we’re still waiting for Covid restrictions to ease enough that we can finally have a delayed Christmas with my daughter and her boyfriend.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Decisions, decisions…reading it in winter will make it feel all the more atmospheric, for sure. I read it last weekend, just as the snow was beginning to fall — we didn’t get much in the end, just a light dusting, but it heightened the mood nonetheless! I hope you are able to see your daughter and her boyfriend soon. It’s so hard at the moment, being separated from family and loved ones, especially for people on their own…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think it is hopeful. I’d certainly like to see it that way. The open-ended nature of the narrative works well for me as I guess it allows us to reflect on our own impressions of what might happen next. I just know it would frustrate one or two of my friends in the book group who like everything to be tied up neatly at the end!

      Reply
  2. 1streading

    Thanks, Jacqui – first I’ve heard of this. Sounds perfect for reading in the wintry weather we currently have! Is this a relaunch of Harvill’s Leopard imprint?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d never heard of him either until PRH mentioned the book in one of their emails last year. You’d like it, I think. One to look out for in the charity shops once they reopen!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      They do, don’t they? I have to admit that I hadn’t heard of them before this, but at least they’re on my radar now. As for the Twelve Nights, it was just the right book to read when the snow made a fleeting appearance last weekend. Only the lightest of dustings here, but it was very picturesque at the time!

      Reply
  3. Julé Cunningham

    This was the perfect post to wake up to this morning with the snow that had fallen last night weighing down the trees. It makes me happy to hear that the Leopards are being published again and this sounds like a worthy addition to the list.

    Maybe we should all try the juniper berries in the incense burner, anything to help…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Yes, you can almost smell the pine needles and juniper berries in this wonderfully evocative read. How lovely to hear you had snow last night – just as long as it doesn’t cause you too many problems in getting about and about. We had a very light dusting here last weekend, just enough to make it feel suitably wintry before disappearing in the sun.

      Reply
  4. Radz Pandit

    Everything about this book appeals, Jacqui! I had never heard of it before so thank you for reviewing it. I love atmospheric novellas (Winter in Sokcho was a favourite last year), and will definitely be buying this. Such a beautiful cover too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’d like this Radhika, I’m sure – and the book itself is really beautifully produced. Whoever created the artwork has done such a fantastic job, capturing the mood of the story in the imagery and colours.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Funnily enough, I was thinking of your love of Norwegian literature as I was putting together this review. It has some of the same qualities – particularly in terms of prose style and atmosphere/mood. You’d like it, I suspect!

      Reply
      1. gertloveday

        Couldn’t wait for a hard copy of this so have downloaded on one of the devices. Will be nice to read something short and elegant after being immersed in Glass Bead Game.

        Reply
  5. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  6. buriedinprint

    What a striking cover: and it certainly does sound like the perfect winter read. On the other hand, maybe one could catch a cool draft from it when the Earth tilts and we’re all a-sweat in this hemisphere. (It’s snowing beautifully as I watch out the window while typing here, but not QUITE so beautifully as in that illustration. Nearly, though.)

    Reply
  7. JacquiWine Post author

    It really is very beautiful – almost luminous when viewed in the right light. And yes, reading it in the height of summer would be an interesting experience – a blast of cold air in the sweltering heat. I could see it working as a night-time read in summer, just as the sun is setting and the temperature starts to dip…

    Reply

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.