Thursday, September 22, 2016

Book 43: The Hangman's Daughter


"Drums rumbled, cymbals clanged, and somewhere a fiddle was playing. The aroma of deep-fried doughnuts and roasted meat drifted down to the foul-smelling tanners' quarter. Yes, it was going to be a lovely execution."

Dates read: April 16-18, 2016

Rating: 3/10

Whether one agrees with it or not, there's no denying that the death penalty has a long history. Modern day executioners push a vial of potassium chloride into an IV line and, if everything goes right, wait for the heart to stop. But once upon a time, a death sentence meant beheading or hanging (or worse, like drawing and quartering). The Hangman's Daughter begins with a messy execution in 1600s Bavaria (in modern day Germany): young Jakob Kuisl is supposed to be helping his father, the hangman, with a beheading that ends up terribly botched. It's a grim, moody scene that sets the stage for a dark story.

But after the opening prologue described above and the first scene of the story, in which a young boy is rescued from a raging river at great danger, only to be discovered to be already dying from a blow to the head, the plot stalls out considerably. The boy has a crude tattoo that the townspeople decide indicates witchcraft, so the local midwife is promptly accused and imprisoned awaiting torture and execution. Jakob, now himself the hangman (and torturer, and proto-pharmacist...he wears a lot of hats) is convinced of her innocence and joins forces with Simon, the town doctor's son, to figure out who actually committed these crimes (the murder of the first child is followed by the murder of two other children and some property destruction to boot). They're racing against time as hysteria and pressure to convict and burn the witch grow daily.

Where is the titular hangman's daughter in all this, you might ask? Excellent question! Magdalena is very much a secondary part of the story, and the book could easily be rewritten without her character being missed for a second. She's having a love affair with Simon, which we're continually reminded cannot end in marriage because her father's profession renders her unclean. In the scheme of things that don't quite work about this book, though, the title is small change.

While Jakob Kuisl, as a hangman who studies science and works as a healer when he's not torturing and executing, is an interesting character, no one else in the book has much depth. Simon and Magdalena are flat "young lovers", and the various townspeople are even more one-note: officious, or anachronistically fair-minded, or superstitious, no one is a whole person. And speaking of anachronisms, holy smokes is the language in this historical novel completely out of whack. Obviously as a non-German-speaker I read it in translation and I hope the issue was poor translation, otherwise there's just not even an attempt to make language the slightest bit accurate to the time. There's also a ton of repetitious phrasing, of phrases that are unusual enough that it's really noticeable. These writing/translation problems are so jarring that they take you straight out of the world of the novel. Other than that, there are about 100 more pages of the book than there is plot to fill it, so it drags on pretty badly. At the end of the day, it's just not a very good book.

Tell me, blog you think a book's title character should be a major part of the story?


  1. Yes I do----definitely one I won't add to my list----currently reading the 21 chapter version of A Clockwork Orange---so much different this second reading----30 years later---

    1. I loved that when I read it back in high school! But I haven't read it again since...I'll have to make time for a re-read one of these days because it was super interesting!