The Other Hoffman Sister

Written by Ben Fergusson
Review by Sarah Bower

In 1902, Ingrid Hoffmann’s family moves to German South West Africa, where her father makes his fortune, but the seeds of disaster are sown when her older sister, Margarete, is entered into a childhood engagement to Emil von Ketz, the son of their neighbour, impoverished but aristocratic. The Herero uprising of 1904 drives both families back to Germany, and, in August 1914, just after her wedding to Emil, Margarete disappears. Although Ingrid becomes involved in politics and has some success as a translator of poetry, what drives her is a need to discover what happened to Margarete.

This is a clever and accomplished novel, in which everything happens off-stage. The wars which shape Ingrid’s life do not involve her directly. The fate of her sister reveals truths about her family of which she remains naively and egotistically oblivious. Ingrid is not a poet, but a translator of poetry. Again, the experience is at one remove, though Fergusson, who is himself a literary translator, has huge fun making translations of famous English poems from German back into English, and coming up with versions which, like Ingrid’s understanding, just miss.

Although I enjoyed the translation games, and the quality of the writing, which is both precise and sensual, many of the family’s secrets revealed themselves to me long before Ingrid understood them, and this became irritating. I wanted to shake Ingrid for her obtuseness and was tempted to skim the final third of the book, which struggles with the complexities of Weimar Republic politics as well as the challenge of sustaining suspense. The conclusion, however, is strong in irony as Ingrid throws in her lot with her Jewish friend, Hannah.