Juli Zeh ‘Empty Hearts’


“Let me talk to Babak for a minute,” says Britta. “It’s about business.” “No talking, not now. I’m calling to tell you to stay calm. This probably has nothing at all to do with us.” “Didn’t you see that—” “Of course, it’s possible I saw a suicide belt, but I’m not certain. The news reports aren’t clear. Stay calm, spend your evening with your family, don’t log on to the Internet. Everything the same as usual. Okay? We’ll talk tomorrow.” “Okay.” “Until morning, then.”


Juli Zeh enjoys taking quirks or faults in our society, in the relationships between people and pushing them that little bit further such as in my recently reviewed Unterleuten where she takes the suppressed feelings in a village and pushes the people over the edge. Here in Empty Hearts, set in the near future her main idea is at once simple and twisted, as the book begins, Britta is at home with her family and some friends when a foiled terrorist attack takes place at the airport cargo terminal live on TV and Britta has an emotional response that her husband tries to reduce by explanation:


Is it one of your patients?” Richard and the others know that occasionally one of The Bridge’s clients “does something stupid,” as Britta puts it. When that happens, she acts devastated for a couple of days, while the other three strive to console her, assuring her that she bears no guilt, reminding her that her therapeutic success rate is higher than ninety percent. “They’re just people,” Richard usually says in such cases. “You can try to help them, but there’s only so much you can do.”


This is where we understand that Britta has some sort of involvement with people at risk. Her immediate reaction when she then telephones her work partner Babak lets us understand that her involvement in what has happened is far from straightforward as illustrated in the opening quote. We soon understand the basic premise of the book, which is then developed into the story. The Bridge, Britta’s company, has developed software to trace people who are suicide risks and then puts them through a twelve point psychological program to help them back into society, these people are often thankful and make the donations they live from. The Bridge has a near 90% success rate, but what happens to the 10%? These are the Bridges real business as we learn that they are in fact a service company supplying these people to terrorist organisations from which they make considerably more money, the immerged part of the iceberg.

From the initial terrorist action at the start of the book, whose perpetrators were not from the Bridge, Britta’s life begins to spin out of control in this fascinating thriller.

First Published in German as “Leere Herzen” in 2017 by Luchterhand Literaturverlag.
Translated into English by John Cullen and published as “Empty Hearts” in 2017 by Nan A. Talese