Human Beauty by Merete Pryds Helle
Rural Denmark in the 1930s: Marie is growing up in an environment where money is tight and violence is standard fare in family life. One moment, her quick thinking saves her brother’s life after an allergic reaction to a bee sting, the next, she finds herself tied to a pole by her brothers in a game of Cowboys and Indians that goes horribly wrong. When her father falls from a roof and breaks his back, and her mother finds herself pregnant yet again, Marie is sent to work at a home for girls who have got themselves into trouble, in order to help provide for the family.
Marie’s situation seems hopeless, but then Otto, an electrician’s apprentice with clear blue eyes, arrives and sweeps her off her feet. They move to Copenhagen to create a better future for themselves, but Marie soon finds herself a stay-at-home mum living in the suburbs. And their past has come with them, for better and for worse.
This is the story of a socially excluded family from a deeply impoverished community, and their bid to escape that world amidst the rapid societal changes of the post-war era.
A classic Bildungsroman and a saga loosely based on the author’s own family, this is poignant and compelling writing from Helle. Armed with the knowledge that the main character will survive all the suffering she is subjected to, you find yourself rooting for Marie in her struggle to escape. However, every time things start to look up for the protagonist, Marie suffers a new setback. Human Beauty, the title of a family painting bearing the signature Vincent, is said to represent absolute beauty in the midst of poverty. Ironically it the darker sides of humanity that the novel presents – perhaps this is the only context in which we are able to see the beauty and dignity of the human struggle?
Merete Pryds Helle read literature at the University of Copenhagen and studied at the Danish Writer’s School. Her books have been translated into German, French, Icelandic, Latvian and Arabic.
Human Beauty won Denmark’s prestigious Golden Laurels as well as Politiken’s Literature Prize in 2016.