By Ekta R. Garg

November 11, 2021

What You Can See from Here by Mariana Leky

Release date: June 22, 2021

Genre: Literary fiction

Part of an editor’s job is to smooth away the rough spots in a writer’s unpublished prose. Sometimes this means grammar fixes. Sometimes it requires tackling tough questions about character motivations.

Editing always functions as a juggling act between what an editor thinks should happen on the page versus what the writer wants to happen. It’s also a juggling act between the editor’s (mostly) objective voice and the writer’s biased one. All of us writers love our characters, the scenes we create, and the worlds we build. The more seasoned we get, the less painful it is to let go of those things on the recommendations of an editor but it’s never easy.

There’s also a fine line between an editor’s approach and a writer’s voice. In What You Can See from Here, Mariana Leky’s voice comes through loud and clear from the very first page. It’s true she must have had an editor help her refine some of the work. No book or story has ever been published in the history of publishing that hasn’t had some editor’s eyes on it first. But there’s no doubt from page 1 that Leky is a confident writer, sure of her vision and steady in her gaze.

I find working with writers like that an absolute delight.

What makes her book really interesting, especially from an editing standpoint, is that this version is a translation. Now, all of a sudden, we’re working with the words and visions of two writers. Two people are deeply invested in the project, and both of their opinions are equally valid on every page and line.

The fact that Leky’s prose is so beautiful and mesmerizing in the translated version makes me wonder what the original German sounded like. I’ll confess, when I hear German spoken, I don’t associate it with lush prose. It’s sounds like a sensible, straightforward language full of solutions and practical life aspects.

I know, now, how wrong I am. Just like other languages, German can and does hold a strength and verve that will excite any editor.

I don’t know if Leky’s editor worked on both the German and English versions. Talk about a mental switch! Just think of the considerations of grammar, phrasing, pop culture references…the challenges would have grown quite a bit. Had I worked on this, even though I don’t know German, I would have probably wanted to talk to both Leky and her translator, Tess Lewis, to make sure I was smoothing the right words in the right directions.

I also don’t know what the manuscript looked like in the original German before Leky’s editor got it, but I’m willing to venture a guess that it was still confident and mature. Sure in the way it wanted to go. That Leky probably had no doubt of how she saw this work progress. Even as a non-German-speaking editor, I can sense that much.

Working on the English version…wow. What a privilege that would have been! It’s books like these that allow readers, writers, and editors to delight in the pure beauty of words and how they shape stories.

Main character Luisa makes the following observation about her mother:

“My mother had been wondering if she should leave my father. This question filled her from head to toe. She only ever asked herself, but she asked it so often and with such intensity that she never had time to find an answer. … Much later I wondered if the question would have given up and made room for me if Selma and the optician hadn’t always been there, if I hadn’t always had them to turn to, if they hadn’t invented the world together.”

These lines use the focus of a laser to go straight to the heart of Luisa’s relationship with her mother as well as her grandmother and the special friend in their lives. Leky doesn’t just say, though, that Luisa’s mother is preoccupied with herself, or that she’s too self-involved to be a mother, in fact. She uses the language in a way that lets us explore all the layers of Luisa’s life.

Much later in the book, as Luisa faces the possibility of losing the love of her life and wonders how she’ll live without him, she thinks the following:

“We can do all sorts of things with love. We can hide it more or less well, we can drag it behind us, we can lift it over our heads, we can bury it in the ground and send it up to heaven. And love always cooperates, forbearing and amenable as it is. But we cannot change it.”

The statement at the end is true enough. In all of the ways Luisa talks about love, though, she’s mentioning, without naming them, the people in the village who have shown her love or whose love she’s observed. And thanks to the way she’s set up the story to this point, we know exactly who she’s talking about and their individual circumstances. All of them encountered love in various ways and wanted to change something; none of them were successful.

The writing is astonishing.

Had I worked on this book and looked for a specific plot progression, I would have wrung my hands. Leky, though, invites her readers to sit and think and listen and feel for a while. The best stories, no matter what genre, always ask that from readers. When they do it with this much heart and originality in the language, it makes the editing (and, later, the reading) process so much better.