A Family Failure

by Renate Rasp. Translated from the German by Eva Figes. Orion, $5.95. The patterns of family behavior laid down as typical by psychiatry make life easy for a novelist in one way (no need to puzzle about a woman’s attitude toward her beautiful daughter—she hates the girl) and difficult in another, for if all mothers must feel the same, why write the book? One way around the problem is fantasy, in which the author can retain the expected emotional relationships of his characters while committing them to totally unexpected actions. Miss Rasp has used this old fairy tale device brilliantly in her novel about an adolescent boy, his mother, and his stepfather. The stepfather is determined to train Kuno for what he considers a proper and distinguished career. The mother wavers between sympathy for her badgered son and witless love for her husband. The youth is submissive and baffled. All the treacheries, jealousies, bullyings, and semi-incestuous affections proper to the situation become more vivid because the career in question is unsuitably arboreal; Kuno is to become a tree. A clever, haunting, savagely funny projection of commonplace domestic folly.