Dear Child by Romy Hausmann

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Dear Child is German author Romy Hausmann’s debut English novel. She starts with a short prologue about the disappearance of Lena, a 23-year-old university student, on her way home from a party. Lena had visited her parents the afternoon before she disappeared, and everything seemed perfectly normal. Yet, the police are never able to solve her disappearance.

Fourteen years later, a young woman who says her name is Lena appears in the hospital. She has a scar on her forehead like Lena, but as she weaves in and out of consciousness, she is unable to help the police understand what happened. Her daughter, Hannah, who arrived with her in the ambulance, seems strangely uncommunicative to the hospital staff and the police. They all believe Hannah knows more than she is saying.

Gerd Brühling is a police inspector and formerly the best friend of Lena’s father, Matthias. In the years since Lena’s disappearance, the case has gone cold and the friendship has suffered. Matthias has cut off his friendship with Gerd. Nevertheless, Gerd advises Matthias that a young woman resembling Lena has arrived at a hospital several miles away in the district of Cham. Gerd urges Matthias to wait until they can confirm if it is Lena or not.

Matthias has been waiting for 4,993 days and has no intention of waiting a minute more. For over 13 years, he has tortured himself over his daughter’s disappearance. He has worried if she would be held for ransom. He has worried if she would be found it the River Isar. He immediately heads to Lena, but when he sees her, he states unequivocally that this Lena is not his Lena. However, Lena’s mother turns around and spies Hannah approaching with one of the nurses. The girl, Hannah, looks exactly like her daughter Lena did when she was a young girl. The girl claims Lena is her mother.

And the novel begins. What’s going on? Who is this young woman? How can this Lena be Hannah’s mother and yet, according to Matthias, not his daughter? Why won’t Hannah talk to them? The author weaves the story back and forth from each character’s point of view, and the reader has to figure out the true story as the novel develops.

Lena, we soon learn, is really Jasmin. Dear Child alternates between reality and Jasmin’s memories of the cabin where she was kept for four months. She doesn’t know Lena or what happened to her. It took Jasmin four months, but she did kill her captor and escape. Yet, somehow, Jasmin doesn’t feel safe. Why not? He’s dead, isn’t he?

Later in the novel, even though his wife is reluctant, Matthias wants to bring Hannah home with him from the psychiatric hospital. He believes it will help Hannah, and at the same time, he can question her (gently, of course) about Lena. He is convinced that Hannah holds the key to the mystery.

Hannah is proven to be his granddaughter by a DNA test, but she’s a strange child. The psychologists believe she may be a high functioning autistic. They temporarily diagnose her as having Asperger’s syndrome. Is it Asperger’s or the unusual childhood she has had?

Matthias plays devil’s advocate to the police. He feels that they never dedicated enough time and resources to solving Lena’s disappearance so he takes matters into his own hands at several points during the novel. He has come to hate the press because of their lies about Lena, yet he sometimes uses them for his own purposes. By creating mayhem, he adds to the difficulties of the police trying to solve the case.

A myriad of other characters is introduced into the story including Hannah’s brother, Jonathan, as the story develops. There’s Lena’s old boyfriend. Many of the characters hover around Jasmin as she struggles with the PTSD caused by her captivity. We encounter her ex-girlfriend, her landlady, a new neighbor and reporters trying to get a story.

The novel is a first-class psychological thriller. It is well written and plotted with characters who are interesting and believable. The plot itself is one of those that will stick with you a long time. You will ask yourself, “How can people do such things? And why?” Some minds just don’t work like ours, and it’s impossible to understand them because their reality is quite different from the normal world as we know it. This is one of those cases. David Baldacci said of the novel, “Dear Child is a chilling, original and mesmerizing work. Hausmann is a force to be reckoned with. You can’t stop reading.” I agree.

In the epilogue, Hausmann explains how Lena survived during her captivity. Jasmin resisted and Lena lived on hope. In these few lines, Hausmann explains much of the novel and gives us a satisfactory ending. It’s all about hope. Life always is. ■