Book Review: The Extraordinary Ordinary, by Andrena Woodhams
Turning a tragedy-tinged romance into a reflective first novel: “The Viennese hold darkness well”
Love in Vienna: Death and Transfiguration
Every time I land at Vienna’s Schwechat airport, I sense it. It is a palpable feeling of heaviness in the air, a life that is slower-paced, a curious sensation that everything around me is so solid that it will be here forever.
When I first moved to Vienna, this deep tugging of the earth under my feet made me feel as if I were walking in treacle. This was in 1996 when, as a thirty something television journalist, I left my television career in London behind to live a fairytale. I had been invited to Vienna to open a cable television network, and planned to marry a handsome prince and live happily ever after in his city palais. Within months of my arrival, however, a heartbreaking death impelled me to abandon my dreams. Knowing no one and not speaking the language, I retreated into myself, unable to do anything Vienna was famous for; too angry to sit in a café to watch the world go by, too tormented to attend its opera or concerts, too unhappy to visit its museums. It was only when my worst nightmare turned into a voyage of self-discovery did this experience become a gift. And it only could have happened in Vienna.
This tragic love story became the basis for my first book, a page-turner with a purpose called The Extraordinary Ordinary. The novel begins with the death of the heroine Annabel’s lover’s wife, and follows her on her journey of guilt, jealousy, near-madness and helpless questioning as she begins a foray into herself. Her suffering in relationships with men paves the way into darkness and out into light again. The core theme of the book — the process of awakening of a contemporary woman — reflects my growing love affair with the evolving consciousness of women of the world today, and of my love of Vienna. This book is as intimate as anything I have ever written.
"Yes, the energy here is heavy," the newspaper agent Karl Dietmeyer tells Annabel. "That’s one of the reasons the Viennese are often cranky. And why we have so many angels."
Herr Dietmeyer is a newspaper agent with an attitude. His small newspaper stand on the Graben, with its rows of colorful Tibetan prayer flags hanging from the ceiling and spiritual literature tucked amongst his newspapers, makes Annabel feel as if she is in a miniature temple.
As Annabel descends into the darkness of herself, discovering parallels between her own personal abuse and that of Vienna’s historical past, she discovers the pioneering work of Wilhelm Reich and Austria’s true part in the Holocaust. As she flies in ecstasy or trudges in despair through the evocative architecture of Vienna, Herr Dietmeyer encourages Annabel to probe within herself. Only by accepting the dark sides of life, he explains, can she begin to feel whole. But darkness, he explains, is something that few people today want to accept.
Except in Vienna. Unusually, Vienna is a city that is comfortable with its shadow. Its morbid fascination with darkness and death has been the center of countless articles and commentaries. Vienna’s shadowy World War II past and contradictions of the post-war period have fascinated many writers including Graham Greene. The Central Cemetery, one of the largest in Europe with a sea of over 330,000 graves, is a popular destination for many Viennese. The Viennese hold darkness well.
However for many people, including Annabel, Vienna’s darkness is uncomfortable. But it is a necessary part of life. "If you don’t feel death," Annabel’s boyfriend Max explains to her after her cat dies, "you can’t feel life. In order to experience the majesty of the mountains, you need to descend into the darkest of valleys." In other words, feel the abyss. "Vienna holds death well," Max tells her. "It’s joy that the Viennese have a hard time with. That’s why they love music. Holding all that death without joy, they need all the music they can get."
Perhaps this is what I feel when I sense the heaviness in Vienna. Death. Darkness. Transition. These are some of Vienna’s more unusual gifts, and perhaps is one of the reasons Vienna is the cradle of psychoanalysis. Vienna is the home of Sigmund Freud, Josef Breuer, Alfred Adler, Viktor Frankl, Wilhelm Reich, and many other therapies that are so revolutionary they are still misunderstood today.
The past feels very present here, and sometimes it is very heavy indeed. But then again, it is precisely this weight that gives Vienna such a reassuring presence. In a world of increasing consumerism and an almost maniac obsession with image and speed, Vienna offers a solidity that offers many people comfort. It is a welcome refuge for which I will be always grateful. The Viennese, knowing the dark sides of life, are cautious. They take their time to get to know you; they need to measure you up before they become friends. The Viennese may be cranky but they are solid, dependable, and loyal friends. The Viennese, I discovered, are like Herr Dietmeyer’s angels.
The next time you are wandering around Vienna, look up. There, on the rooftops of many of Vienna’s baroque palaces and buildings scattered through the first district, you will see them. Round, fat cherubs, willowy saints in flowing robes, dynamic Athenas, the stone statues of angels are always looking down upon you.
They are secretly keeping an eye on you as you walk below, taking care of you, every step along the way.
Andrena Woodhams will be presenting The Extraordinary Ordinary and discussing the themes of this essay at the British Bookshop on Thursday, Oct. 21 at 19:00. Admission free; refreshments. www.andrenawoodhams.com
1., Weihburggasse 24-26
01 512 19 45