I’m back at Strange Horizons with a new review. The Liquid Land by Raphaela Edelbauer (translated from German by Jen Calleja) concerns a woman who goes in search of her parents’ birthplace and finds a quaint little town in its own bubble of reality – with a giant hole in the middle, where the secrets of the past can be conveniently lost. Eddelbauer’s novel is a striking metaphorical exploration of how people may seek to ignore the past, and how it may catch up with them. Published by Scribe UK.
In the Belly of the Queen is published as two novellas back-to-back, each set amongst the same group of characters in a Kurdish community in Germany. In my reading of the book, the two novellas don’t fit into the same chronology – but I have to sound a note of caution here, because I haven’t found another review online that thinks the same. If I’m wrong in what follows, so be it – I can only write about the book that I read.
In each novella, the narrator is close to the character Younes. Raffiq (whose story I read first) can’t help thinking about Younes’s beautiful mother Shahira, who doesn’t conform to the community’s expectations – for example, she sleeps around and wears revealing clothes. The attention is too much for Younes, who goes to find his father in Frankfurt. Raffiq’s girlfriend Amal plans to go to America, and his father wants the family to leave for Kurdistan, where he’d be qualified to practise as an architect once again. Raffiq wants to stay in Germany, and has to decide where his loyalties lie.
The other story is Amal’s, but here she is no friend of Raffiq. Like Shahira, this Amal doesn’t abide by societal expectations, albeit in a different way: from an early age, she was nicknamed “Mowgli-girl” for cutting her hair short and beating up Younes (they would become closer later on). In this account, Amal’s father is an architect who went back to Kurdistan; she follows him, but doesn’t find quite what she expected.
By structuring her novel in this way, Taha effectively puts Raffiq and Amal in the same position in their respective stories, then explores the different ramifications for each. There’s also the character of Shahira, who looms large in both stories but never speaks to us herself (I have to acknowledge that the author’s essay in the book pointed me towards this). In a sense, she exists beyond the narrative in the same way that she exists beyond community norms. The full effect of Taha’s novel lies in the interplay and contrast between its two halves.
Published by V&Q Books.
While We Were Dreaming was Clemens Meyer’s debut novel, published in German in 2007. A review quoted on the back cover describes it as “a book like a fist”, and that force is apparent in the reading. This novel doesn’t let go.
Daniel and his friends are young teenagers in Leipzig when the Berlin Wall falls. The country reconfigures around them, but for the boys, life goes on in pretty much the same way: a carousel of violence, drinking, sex and skirmishes with the police, leading to spells inside.
The novel chronicles a time of dreams for its young characters, but those dreams don’t necessarily come true. As Daniel reflects:
Every day the memories dance in my head and I torment myself asking why it all turned out the way it did. Sure, we had a whole lot of fun back then, but still there was a kind of lostness in us, in everything we did, a feeling I can’t explain.Translation from German by Katy Derbyshire
While We Were Dreaming is structured out of chronological order, which has the effect of underlining how hard it is for Meyer’s characters to escape their situation, because there isn’t a clear sense of forward progression. Nonetheless, there are moments of hope, amid the book’s constant swirl.
Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Click here to read my other posts on the 2023 International Booker Prize.
Today’s book is from Héloïse Press, a new publisher based in Canterbury that specialises in women’s voices. Laura Vogt is a Swiss author writing in German.
What Concerns Us is about two sisters and their differing experiences of pregnancy and motherhood. The father of Rahel’s son left her suddenly. When she meets a writer named Boris, Rahel decides to make a new family unit with him. But when they have a daughter together, Rahel goes into postnatal depression.
Rahel’s sister Fenna is in a relationship with her abusive partner Luc. She turns up at Rahel’s and Boris’s farmhouse, pregnant and unable to decide whether to blame herself. Then along comes the sisters’ ill mother Verena, and their relationships are tested and reconfigured under the same roof.
Vogt’s writing (in Caroline Waight’s translation) is always close to its characters’ experiences of being their bodies. That makes the reading of What Concerns Us raw, sometimes painful, so often compelling.
We’re going to Germany for this year’s first title from Peirene. Katja Oskamp’s narrator is in her mid-forties, which she imagines as swimming in the middle of a huge lake, with the past having receded but the future still out of focus. She feels she’s treading water:
My life had grown stale: my offspring had flown the nest, my other half was ill and my writing, which had kept me busy until then, was more than a little iffy. I was carrying something bitter within me, completing the invisibility that befalls women over forty. I didn’t want to be seen, but nor did I want to see. I’d had it with people, the looks on their faces and their well-meant advice. I sank to the bottom.
The woman decides that, if she’s going to be invisible to the wider world, she may as well make a major change for herself. She leaves behind her writing career and retrains as a chiropodist. She works out of a salon in the Marzahn area of Berlin, which was formerly part of the GDR. It’s the kind of place that could itself be overlooked, as could the narrator’s (often elderly or disabled) customers. One of the key things she does as a chiropodist is then simply to give her clients recognition.
The novel as a whole does the same. Each chapter focuses on a different customer – and they’re a vivid cast, from Frau Frenzel whose life revolves around her dachshund, to Herr Pietsch, who was a party official in the GDR, but has had to adjust to a rather different way of life since. Marzahn, Mon Amour becomes a composite portrait of this community, one that works to make its characters visible – narrator and customers alike.
Life has scuppered several plans I had this month, including taking part in German Literature Month. Still, I’ve managed to read this, the latest novel by Juli Zeh. I have read Zeh once before, when I reviewed Decompression for Shiny New Books. Like that novel, New Year is set in Lanzarote – and it’s an interesting character portrait.
Henning has taken his young family to Lanzarote for a surprise Christmas break. He might have been hoping to get away from life’s problems, but the trip soon creates issues of its own, such as another man flirting with Henning’s wife Theresa.
On New Year’s Day, Henning resolves to make a new start, and cycles up into the mountains. The first part of the novel alternates between Henning’s bike ride and his reflections on the current holiday and his life. There’s a real sense here of the environment and Henning’s state of mind.
We learn that Henning has panic attacks, caused by something buried in the past. When he reaches the summit of his ride, something about the place doesn’t feel quite right. A memory stirs – and, for the rest of the book, we see what happened in Henning’s childhood. In effect, New Year is structured like Henning’s bike ride: the journey to the top that maps out Henning’s present and recent past; and the exhilarating ride down again, as we discover just why Henning is the way he is.
Published by World Editions.
Judith Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses (translated from the German by Jackie Smith, and published by MacLehose Press) is a collection of stories, each inspired by something that has been lost to the world: buildings, species, artworks and more besides. Each piece is written in a different style, adding up to a multifaceted exploration of loss. It’s a beautiful looking volume, too.
I’ve reviewed An Inventory of Losses for Splice, where I go into more detail on a selection of the stories.
My post today is part of a blog tour for V&Q Books, the new English-language imprint from the German publisher Voland & Quist. The imprint is headed by the translator Katy Derbyshire, and is dedicated to writing from Germany. It’s not necessarily going to be limited to books translated from German, although the first ones are. V&Q offered me review copies of their first three titles, and I take a look at each below…
Sandra Hoffmann, Paula (2017)
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (2020)
Paula begins like this:
We have a word in German: schweigen. It means deliberately remaining silent; it is different to merely being quiet.
This autobiographical work explores the effects such a deliberate silence may have on a family. The young Sandra Hoffmann knew that she and her mother looked different from other people in her village – darker-skinned – but she didn’t know who her grandfather was. Her grandmother Paula, a staunch Catholic, refused to say.
This isn’t a story of Hoffmann discovering her grandfather’s identity. It’s a study of the gaps left behind and what might fill them. Hoffmann goes over the many photographs that Paula left behind, and imagines the scenes and people in them.
The silence – the schweigen – permeates the book, spreading through its long passages. The oppressive effects of the silence on family life, in Hoffmann’s childhood and down the years, are vividly conveyed.
Lucy Fricke, Daughters (2018)
Translated from the German by Sinéad Crowe (2020)
Daughters is the story of two women – old friends – trying to find their place in life at age forty, and to deal with the loss of a father-figure.
For Martha, this loss is imminent: her father has booked an appointment for a one-way journey to Switzerland, and wants her to drive him. Betty wants to visit Rome to find the grave, not of her biological father (with whom she has little to do), but an ex-partner of her mother’s, an Italian she remembers as “the Trombonist”. Martha and Betty embark on a road trip across Europe with these intentions in mind. But both of them will find that the situation is not as they imagined, and their relationships will be tested.
Lucy Fricke’s novel is full of wry humour that makes it a pleasure to read:
We were the daughters of fathers who’d only found time to talk to us after they’d retired. We explained the internet to them and they explained the weather. Their love came so late that we barely knew what to do with it. We just accepted it with gratitude. But we had little to give, and nothing at all to give back.
Sinéad Crowe’s translation is wonderful: so often, I found myself stopping at a striking turn of phrase. The plot veers off in unexpected directions… This book is a joy.
Francis Nenik, Journey through a Tragicomic Century (2018)
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (2020)
This non-fiction volume is subtitled “The Absurd Life of Hasso Grabner”. Grabner (1911-76) was a writer, albeit an obscure one – Francis Nenik says that he wanted to write about a forgotten author, and there was barely anything about Grabner online at the time he looked.
The reason Grabner’s life is described as absurd has to do, I think, with its apparent contradictions. He was a committed young communist who ended up being awarded an Iron Cross by Germany for his military service. He was director of a steelworks in the GDR whose writing was banned.
As with Fricke’s book, there’s a wonderfully wry undercurrent – a fine translation by Katy Derbyshire:
And Hasso Grabner? Not only is he part of the grotesque named history and always precisely where it is being made; he is also co-writing it, even though he doesn’t know the script, and history is more than slippery, what with it only ever coming about when it’s already happened…
You can watch a reading from Journey through a Tragicomic Century here.
All in all, this set of books is a strong start for V&Q Books (I like their series cover design as well). I look forward to seeing what else they have in store for us.
Now we come to the top 10 books in my list of memorable reading moments. I wanted to say a bit more with these, so I’ve split the ten in half. The top 5 will be up next Sunday, but for now, please enjoy numbers 10 through to 6. These are all books I have never forgotten, and doubt I ever will.Continue reading