Finalist, 2019 Foreword Indie Awards – General Fiction
Upon the death of their art-loving parents, thirteen and fourteen year old Jewish sisters are kidnapped by a family friend and taken to a brothel. There they are held captive by their shared shame and by the younger sister’s forced addiction to morphine. Love and psychodrama gives them the courage to finally escape Vienna. Once in England, however, Hedy discovers her younger sister Susannah longs to be independent— and in Italy. But in 1938, despite the safety they each have found among the privileged, they return to Vienna just before Hitler arrives, putting their own lives and those of two children in danger. With the background of anti-Semitism and exploitation, of sex and love and art and dramatic ruses, all during the terrifying rise of fascism in Austria and Italy, Look After Her reveals this truth: no matter how close we are to another human being, even a beloved sister, that’s what we are: close— we all have our own secrets to keep.
“Here is a voice poignant and alive, offering unusual insights in scintillating dialogue. To leave the last page of this work is to re-enter the world you thought you always knew but which you now recognize anew in Hedy and Susannah. Make no mistake: this is because you have been guided by an author whose rare gift is that of surprise, a manner of holding the reader in generative uncertainty. Hannah Brown’s debut novel Look After Her calls us into the challenge and promise of its pulse and world well beyond the that last, utterly-earned page.”
—Canisia Lubrin, author of Voodoo Hypothesis
“Hannah Brown’s debut novel, Look After Her brings sex, sisters, and psychodrama to a story that will leave you haunted.”
—Jess Taylor, author of Just Pervs
“An ambitious and accomplished debut novel, Look After Her follows sisters Hedy and Susannah as they liberate themselves and build new lives against the backdrop of a world marching inexorably to war. Superbly well-paced, the novel evokes a sense of time and place so strong you can taste the Viennese chocolat mit schlag and the Italian espresso, and feel a chilly London winter in your bones.”
—Terri Favro, author of Once Upon a Time in West Toronto
We were the last to leave. Once outside, Susannah turned to me.
“So. Margarete has become a professional, too.”
“I think she might have already been on the game when we met her at Schiele’s.”
“Two years ago.”
It seemed as distant as the Napoleonic Wars. For a few moments, to hang onto the buoyant feeling of that room, Susannah and I were quiet. We walked quickly to the back entrance of the Café Arundel where Susannah convinced the bare-armed dishwasher to let us in, then through the café and out the front door. We walked casually towards Hermann’s fiacre. Susannah stopped.
“Did you notice how he touched their wrists?”
“Yes! The way we do with callers.”
“Yes! It’s odd, what he had us do in there, but I liked it.”
“I did, too. But then, I’m pretty odd.”
“No, Hedy, you are oddly pretty. You have that little waist. I wish I had hips to sway around the room like you do.”
“I don’t sway my hips around the room.”
“Oh, yes, you do.” Susannah nodded. “To great effect. Dramatic, like your eyes.”
“Like Mama’s, like you know a secret. Mama’s used to brighten like yours. You have her pale skin, too.”
She is talking about our mother. We never talk about her.
“So I look Jewish. Unlike you.”
“I do so look Jewish.” She opened the door to the fiacre. “There are lots of blonde Jews, Hedy.” She stumbled on the step, righted herself, and pulled me up after her.
“Not all of them make ridiculous compliments, I hope.”
“I’m not finished. I know my sister, and I say her mouth is lovely. We are more than what we do. Talk to me.”
She settled into the cushioned seat. “Let’s keep talking.”
And we did, my sister and I, arm in arm, inside the quiet of the fiacre on our way back to the brothel, and then on into the night’s small waking hours.
The meetings with Moreno were held during the day, as it was understood that some of the women would begin to work their favourite street corners at the day’s close. For us, it became a habit when we came back in the late afternoon to ask for hot tea from the kitchen on our way up the stairs. It would arrive in no time, almost before we’d taken our hats off. When we unlaced our shoes, Susannah would leave hers in a heap that she would trip over, every time. And then we would sit together, talking, the old sun sinking down on his elbows below the window.
“Margarete complains every meeting about how someone has stolen something from her. I have to suppress the urge to ask her if she still has your bicycle, Susannah. Or your hat.”
“But you have to agree she’s entertaining. That old stuff doesn’t matter. And those hours I spent with her were eye-opening. Wonderful. I remember thinking I would like to become a master thief.”
“And steal what?”
She sipped her tea. “Anything I could. It was the idea of sneaking around, no one knowing what I was doing. Speaking of which, I’m going downstairs.”
“You’re spending so much time with Kreutzel!”
“I am finding out all I can about her finances. And it’s nice being someplace other than in here.”
“In this room with me.”
“Hedy, please. That’s not what I meant.”
“As long as you are only pretending to be Kreutzel’s best little friend in all the world.”
She hugged me. “How can you be jealous, Hedy? I don’t trust her. Or Margarete, for that matter. But Margarete is fun. Like you used to be. If you want to ask Margarete about that old Stern, oh, and the hat, go ahead.”
She stumbled over her shoes, slipped them on, and slammed the door. Which we weren’t supposed to do at 13, Verstektstrasse. I didn’t remember ever being fun.
One morning I woke to a clatter on the stairs and sudden street noise. When I went to the window, I saw Susannah talking over her shoulder to Kreutzel in her office. My sister was so happy with her latest way to bother the old girl. The day before, a very young man, an adolescent, had waited for Susannah to come out and buy the afternoon edition of a newspaper. He told her that the only thing that made his life bearable at his high school across the street, Real Gymnasium, was watching from a classroom window to see her descend the brothel steps to buy a morning newspaper.
So this morning, she put on her lip rouge, her high-heeled silk mules, and my shawl-collared wrap to buy the morning paper. I could tell Kreutzel was watching. The casement window always squawked when she opened it. She kept an eye on the entrance to her house from behind a curtain, which blocked her from the view of anyone on the street.
Kreutzel hardly ever heaved herself upstairs anymore. Tuesday was now the only day she left the premises, and she had to be helped into Hermann’s deteriorating fiacre so that she could do her banking and pay bribes to the authorities, to the police and the local councillor. Hermann had been with her for years. We called him “the Hound,” a nickname he loved—he relished being a spy for Kreutzel. She relied on him to be discreet about regular callers and to haul away the few who caused problems.
The way her spine was forcing her over, bending her into submission, was impressive. She was irritable. Her spine pained her, but she was still able to see over her half glasses because her chair now sat on a flat wooden platform. This was the second one she had Hans build, higher than the first one. Susannah said that eventually she would be as high as a Jewish bride in that chair. Hans had half-finished painting the platform. He half-did a lot of things. When they argued about his various tasks, we all eavesdropped at the top of the stairs and laughed when he talked back.
This morning, as she talked to Kreutzel, Susannah pretended to struggle to grasp the coin out of her pocket, the better to part the wrap and expose one long bare leg. She waved the coin at the newsboy, and she made sure that her breasts bounced when she tripped down the steps. She had an audience of four: the newsboy, Kreutzel in her chair by the curtain, me, and, guaranteed, the high school student watching from his classroom window. To make the show last longer, she refused the top papers, one by one, on the newsboy’s pile and finally took one from the middle. She stretched one arm and yawned a little girl’s yawn. Then she sashayed up the steps, reading the paper as she went, and closed the door with a kick of her foot.
Back in our room, she flopped into the chair with her paper. “What a show.”
“There should be an award, Hedy, or at least applause.”
“I don’t know why you waste your time teasing that boy.”
“If I am to rule my life as if I were the monarch of a kingdom, that kingdom had better be fun.”
The sessions with Moreno were having an effect. Her relationship with Kreutzel had changed: now they argued and made up all the time. I was torn between a jealousy I didn’t want to admit to, and an anxiety that Susannah would go too far and jeopardize my plans for our escape. I was sure we had almost enough money to leave.
“You have to stop tormenting that boy. Stop drawing attention to yourself and making her worry.”
“That’s the idea. If she is worried about me and a boy, the last thing she’ll worry about is us leaving. I am going to flirt with him every afternoon, and put on a show every morning. It drives Kreutzel crazy. And besides, Billy’s sweet.” She grinned. “I love bothering her. Every day I walk a little further down the front steps, and I can hear that old chair of hers creaking. One day she’s going to fall flat on her face.”