THE TOBACCONIST by Robert Seethaler

A quiet and gentle read set in turbulent times. It is 1938 in Austria. Seventeen year old Franz lives with his mother in a quiet settlement some distant from Vienna. He does nothing, has had a very sheltered upbringing, and is very naive, which I found a little strange, as in a rural community, I imagine there would have been plenty for a strong healthy young man to do. Never mind. His mother's circumstances change, and she is forced to send him off to Vienna to the care and employ of an old friend, the tobacconist Otto Trsnjek - the relationship between the two adults is never fully explained, and I often wondered if he may have been Franz's father. Otto lost a leg during WWI and now owns the shop that sells newspapers and magazines as well as tobacco and cigars.

Franz's eyes are opened to an entirely new and different world, which he slowly gets used to, and in the process develops a personality, because there certainly wasn't one there initially! One of Otto's customers is Sigmund Freud with whom Franz develops an unusual friendship with. The arrival of Hitler completely upends Franz's new life, the city of Vienna and the people who live in it. Franz finds he also has to make choices. As an aside to all this, he falls passionately in love with an interesting young woman with a mysterious life! The ending is a surprise, and strangely enough also satisfying.

So this is a very uneven plot description, because the book itself is quite uneven in much of its narration and its characters. However despite that, which may of course be a reflection on the uncertainty of the time it was set in, I did like it very much. The writing is beautiful - translated from German; Franz's changing relationship with his mother as he grows from young boy to young man is lovely to see. There is a strong message that comes through - determination to be good and find goodness when evil is all around - a message as timely now as it was then. 

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