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When Emmi sends and email to cancel a magazine subscription, she has no idea what a slight typo in the email address will lead to - a life-changing, potentially marriage-wrecking, all-consuming online love affair with the man whom she emails in error. What starts as an insignificant, casual message quickly becomes something much more important to both her and Leo as two people who have never met start to share their secrets and wishes, dreams and fears with each other, not just because they can but, it seems, because they have to.
We don't know where the book is set other than it's a German-speaking city, but that is immaterial anyway as the story takes place entirely online. There are lots of books that use email to tell the story, either partly or in its entirety (the classic E: A Novel springs to mind), but this one is a bit different. For one thing, the messages include only a subject line, and the text itself. We aren't told who is sending each one (but though it's not a direct back and forth, you can usually still tell who is writing from what and how things are said) and we're also not given a date or time. Instead, each paragraph is preceded by a 'one minute later' or 'the next morning' giving you immediate understanding of the passage of time, but no on-going reminders - it's hard to keep track of how long those minutes and days add up to as pages pass, since each new email is referenced only in relation to the one that came before. In a lot of ways it's like reading a play as everything else is stripped away, leaving behind nothing but pure dialogue. This is a book of emails and nothing else, so some of these have to be a bit longer to provide background to the story and the characters, but this comes across naturally and not forced in the way some emails, or indeed diary entries, in other books can.
Originally published in German, and subsequently translated by a husband and wife team, each taking the voice of one of our characters, this book has a unique style. The characters are nicely defined, but then there are only two of them. Emmi is married with kids but though she talks about them, the off spring never make an appearance. Leo we know even less about as he's not inclined to share. The writing has a slightly sterile feel to it at times, similar to some Scandinavian work, though to determine whether this was how it started or simply how the translation means it ended, I'd have to get my hands on the original - something I might just do because it's written in such a way that I don't think the German would be too challenging. An ideal book for language students, perhaps, since the modern language (and modern style) make it much more accessible than some more classic literature.
It doesn't sizzle in quite the same way as 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' does, but there's an undeniable tension between the couple from very early on which aborted attempts to meet and a failure to swap photos only add to: for this pair, it's all about how they write rather than what they look like, and while there's the speculation you would predict from both sides, nothing is truly confirmed or denied. The story builds well with the ending quite unexpected, a proper stop and gape moment, and I was left wanting more (and ready for the promised - but as yet unavailable - sequel).
It is a truly compelling read and had me far more intrigued than I thought it would at the start. It's easy to flit through, perfect for picking up and putting down (think of it as waiting for the next email to arrive) and was far better than I thought it might be.
Out now in paperback...and ebook form (natch)
This review first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk