Kamila Shamsie – Home Fire [dt. Titel: Hausbrand]

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Kamila Shamsie – Home Fire 

Isma kann sich endlich ihren Traum erfüllen und in den USA ihren Doktortitel erwerben. Viele Jahre hat sie sich nach dem Tod der alleinerziehenden Mutter um ihre beiden jüngeren Geschwister Aneeka und Parvaiz gekümmert, doch diese haben nun die Schule beendet und stehen auf eigenen Beinen. Isma hat Sorge, dass man sie als Muslimin am Flughafen aufhalten könnte, doch alles geht glatt. In Massachusetts lernt sie den Briten Eamonn Lone kennen, der ihr anbietet, ein Geschenk für ihre Tante mit zurück nach London zu nehmen. Dort macht er Bekanntschaft mit Aneeka und verliebt sich sogleich in die junge Frau. Dies scheint auf Gegenseitigkeit zu beruhen, doch er weiß nicht, dass Aneeka ihn missbraucht, denn Eamonns Vater ist der Innenminister und dessen Hilfe braucht Aneeka, um ihren Bruder zu befreien. Dieser sitzt in Rakka unter Islamisten und will einfach nur zurück nach England.

Kamila Shamsies Roman stand auf der Longlist für den Man Booker Prize 2017 und gewann im folgenden Jahr den Women’s Prize for Fiction. Die Thematik könnte kaum aktueller und kontroverser sein: wie umgehen mit Muslimen bei der andauernden Bedrohung durch den IS und seine Handlanger? Was tun mit den Landsleuten, die sich der Terrororganisation angeschlossen haben? Wie den unbescholtenen Bürger vom potentiellen Attentäter unterscheiden? Gleichzeitig wird aber auch die ganz private und individuelle Problematik der Identität, wenn man zwischen zwei Kulturen aufgewachsen ist, angesprochen und ebenso das Aufeinandertreffen von öffentlichen und privaten Interessen, die nicht zu vereinen sind. Viel food for thought und zugleich eine elegante und doch reduzierte Sprache, die auf unnötig blumige Metaphorik verzichtet.

Man weiß eigentlich nicht, wo man beginnen soll, bei all den begeisternden Facetten der Erzählung. Sie ist eine moderne Fassung von Sophokles „Antigone“ (wobei sie bei der Schwesternstruktur eher Anouilh folgt), eine junge Frau, die für ihren Bruder mit einem mächtigen Gegner kämpft und ihren innersten Überzeugungen folgt und dafür alle Konsequenzen in Kauf nimmt. Parvaiz‘ Anwerbung für den IS wird ebenfalls glaubwürdig und nachvollziehbar geschildert. Der homegrown oder domestic terrorism hat zunehmend Einzug in die Literatur gefunden, sowohl in Krimis und Thrillern (z.B. Joakim Zanders „Der Bruder“ oder Daniel Silvas „Die Attentäterin“) wie auch in Theaterstücken oder anspruchsvoller Literatur (Hanif Kureishis „Black Album“ etwa) wird ergründet, wie ein scheinbar gut integrierter junger Mensch sich plötzlich gegen sein Heimatland wendet. Parvaiz schliddert ahnungslos in sein Schicksal, doch der Hauptkonflikt verläuft letztlich zwischen Eamonn und seinem Vater.

Sicherlich mit eines der anspruchsvollsten Bücher der letzten Jahre, das geschickt eine sehr alte Grundsatzproblematik mit einem hochmodernen Thema verknüpft.

Luba Goldberg-Kuznetsova – Lubotschka

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Luba Goldberg-Kuznetsova – Lubotschka

Nicht mehr lange bis Lubotschka und ihre Mutter das geliebte Sankt Petersburg gen Deutschland verlassen werden. Doch ein paar Ereignisse stehen noch an: der Schulabschluss mit dem Ball, der 18. Geburtstag, die erste Nach mit einem Mann, noch einmal Silvester. Obwohl sich das Mädchen auf das neue Leben freut, wird sie doch fast vom Wehmut übermannt. Kann man sich angemessen von der Heimatstadt verabschieden? Sie birgt so viele Erinnerung an das Internat, die Schuljahre, die Freundinnen und natürlich all die Wege, die sie in den vielen Jahren gegangen ist: auf dem Newski Prospekt, an der Newa entlang oder der Fontanka, in die teuren Boutiquen und auf die billigen Märkte.

Es liegt auf der Hand, dass in ihrem Debüt sehr viel von der Autorin selbst liegt. 1982 im damaligen Leningrad geboren, hat sie genau wie die Protagonistin den großen Wandel und die Öffnung gen Westen in den 1990er Jahren als junges Mädchen erlebt und ist 2001 nach Deutschland gekommen, wo sie Philosophie und literarisches Schreiben studierte.

Zwei Aspekte haben mich im Roman besonders begeistert. Zum einen ist der Erzählton authentisch, man glaubt wirklich einem jungen Mädchen gegenüberzusitzen, das die Welt entdeckt. Die große politische Welt interessiert sie nicht, es sind die unmittelbaren Dinge um sie herum, die ihre Gedanken ausfüllen: die Freundschaften mit den Klassenkameradinnen, die internationalen Zeitschriften mit ihren meist oberflächlichen Themen rund ums Aussehen, die neueste Mode und Schminke und vor allem das perfekte Kleid für den Abschlussball. Gleichzeitig liest sie aber klassische Literatur und beobachtet und analysiert messerscharf das Treiben auf den Petersburger Straßen. Sie kommt aus einem typischen Elternhaus, das gebildet aber arm ist. Die Mutter muss als Lehrerin trotzdem noch auf der Straße Kwas verkaufen und triebt einen kleinen Handel mit Waren aus Polen. Designermode ist nicht drin, ebenso nur eine kleine Wohnung in einer Chruschtschowka.

Daneben kommt der Petersburger Atmosphäre zu Beginn des Jahrtausends eine große Rolle zu. Immer wieder bewegt sich das Mädchen durch die Stadt, die so langsam zu einem Bild entsteht. Zwischen den großen klassizistischen Gebäuden wie der Eremitage oder Gostiny Dwor, den Boulevards und den Ufern der Newa bewegt sie sich häufig in Trolleybus oder Metro und blickt bereits nostalgisch auf das, was sie verlassen wird. Es begegnen ihr die reichen Ausländer wie die armen Russen, erste lesbische Liebespaare zeigen sich öffentlich und im Fernsehen spricht der neue starke Mann an der Macht. Die Westmarken sind bekannt, auch die Waren kann man kaufen – könnte man, wenn man sie sich leisten könnte. Es war die Zeit voller Hoffnung, die noch nicht von den harten Jahren kündete, die vor dem Land standen.

Luba Goldberg-Kuznetsova ist eine neue Stimme im Literaturbetrieb, die eine ähnliche Geschichte wie Lena Gorelik oder Alexandra Friedmann hat und sich wie die beiden anderen zwischen Journalismus und Literatur bewegt. Ganz definitiv eine Generation von beachtenswerten Frauen, die auf Deutsch schreiben, aber ihr (weiß)russisches Erbe durchscheinen lassen, dass ihnen einen ganz eigenen Ton verleiht.

Jeanette Winterson – Frankissstein

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Jeanette Winterson – Frankissstein

A young transgender doctor, Ry Shelly, is in the middle of the debate of artificial intelligence. What is possible, what is desirable? What makes a human being a human being and could bots be the better versions of us? AI will surely solve a lot of problems, but won’t it create new ones at the same time? Ron Lord is one of the people who will invest in the new technology and hopes to make a lot of money with it; his aim is the creation of the next generation of sex dolls which fulfil all wishes. At the same time, we travel back to the year 1816 when a young woman turned the idea of creating a human being into a highly praised novel: Frankenstein.

With “The Gap of Time”, Jeanette Winterson already showed for me that she is a highly gifted author who can use an old plot and turn it into something completely new that is not only highly entertaining but also beautifully and intelligently written at the same time. In her latest novel, she turns to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein and takes the idea if man as the creator of human being on a higher and contemporary level.

I love the idea of taking and old plot and transferring it to our time, the Hogarth Shakespeare series has clearly proven that this can be something really worth undertaking. The novel skilfully woves the time of Mary Shelly’s stay at Lake Geneva, when she wrote her story of the famous monster, and Ry Shelley’s journey through the world of AI. At times, the dialogues are simply hilarious – I especially liked the one about the sex dolls – at others, the is a serious and in-depth discussion about the chances but also the ethics of AI. And she also raises the big questions of life and death and what comes after the later.

I read an electronic version of the book and marked so many sentences that I now have a large list of quotes that I would eagerly share but that goes far beyond a review. Apart from the wonderful language, there are so many allusions and cross-references that it is a great joy to decipher the novel, beginning with the names of the characters and ending at films such as Blade Runner and the Greek mythology. All in all, a brilliant piece of work that surely is among the more demanding novels and therefore, again, underlines Jeanette Winterson’s place among the highest ranked contemporary authors.

Jodi Picoult – A Spark of Light

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Jodi Picoult – A Spark of light

An ordinary day at the so called Center in Jackson, Mississippi. Women come there to get information about how to prevent a pregnancy, others to end an unwelcome one. Protesters outside belong to the everyday work as well as security measures before getting inside. But on this sunny days, things go wrong when a man with a gun walks in to revenge the grand-child he never had. How can these women dare to decide on another person’s life? George Goddard will teach them a lesson. Outside, Hugh McElroy will try everything to keep the number of victims low, especially since his sister and daughter are in the Center.

When I started the novel, I was fairly astonished even before getting to the first chapter: the novel is told from the end and starts in the late afternoon of that day. This is quite an interesting idea and admittedly I had some doubts if this might actually work out. But it does and suspense is not diminished at all, since there is still a lot to be revealed even when going through the story the wrong way around.

I read other novels of Jodi Picoult before and again, the author did completely fulfil my expectations. She once more chose a highly controversial topic to which you cannot find an easy solution. The women as well as the doctors who are in the Center at the moment the shooter enters all have their individual stories that led them there: a pro-life activist in disguise, a nurse who doubts her boyfriend’s motivation of marrying her and who wants to offer him the possibility of going on in life without her, another young woman who herself had to grow up knowing how it feels if you are not loved and only a burden, a girl who just wants to get a pill – you don’t feel like they didn’t think about what they do before they decided to go to the Center on that day. But the situation between life and death – their life and death – puts the decision they had taken to another test. Especially poignant is the constellation of having the detective in charge’s daughter in the clinic. This adds another very personal aspect to the whole story.

It is not a story about pro-life vs. abortion advocates. Even though this is the initial starting point, Picoult focuses on the individual characters and their respective situation. Neither does she put their decision to the test nor excuse any decision taken. It could have been another connecting element that brings those characters together, what they experience is the moment in life where all could be over and when you inevitably have to question yourself about what is important for you and if it has been worth living. I really like her style of wiring and particularly the characters she creates, thus for me, another remarkable novel not to be missed.

Samuel Park – The Caregiver

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Samuel Park – The Caregiver

In the 1990s, Mara Alcenar is living in California and working as a caregiver for a woman who suffers from cancer. She has been in the US for many years, illegally like so many others and always struggling to survive and hoping not to be caught. Yet, going back to Brazil is not an option; it is just her thoughts that frequently return to her native country. She remembers the time when she was six and living with her mother Ana who worked in the film industry and dubbed foreign productions. She was also a great actor which lead her to a fatal decision: being offered a “role” by leftist rebels, Ana Alcenar couldn’t refuse. She needed the money for herself and Mara. But then, something went completely wrong at the Police Chief’s office. Years later, Mara is a teenager and gets the chance to revenge her mother – but is the episode as she remembers is actually the truth?

Samuel Park’s novel “The caregiver” focuses on two completely different aspects: on the one hand, he addresses political questions such as the military rulers of South America in the 20th century and the precarious situation of immigrants from these countries in the US. On the other hand, he has a very personal topic that the novel makes you think about: what do loving and caring mean and how far would you go for the ones you love?

For me, the parts of the novel that are set in Rio de Janeiro were the most impressive. The author really gives you a good idea of how life was like under those political circumstances and how important your personal bonds were to survive. The neighbour becomes crucial for survival, you find yourself quickly caught between the lines and even if you want to keep away from politics, this isn’t always possible. And there is not just black and white, but many shades of grey.

The question of what loving somebody means is also crucial in the novel. Not the love between lovers, but much more the compassion you feel towards family members and those close to you, how much you are willing to endure and even more importantly: how much you are willing to forgive and to forget.

A novel full of food for thought and at the same time wonderfully written.

John Boyne – A Ladder to the Sky

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John Boyne – A Ladder to the Sky

When Erich Ackermann first meets the young man in a café he is flattered by the admiration of a man so many years younger. As it turns out, Maurice is also a writer like him and Erich believes to discover the aspiring young man he once was in his new acquaintance and he immediately falls for him. Erich takes him on his tour around Europe to promote his book and the more time they spend together, the more the elderly scholar opens up and reveals secrets of his past to his young companion. He will regret this blind trust just as others will, too. Maurice, the charming handsome writer is quick in beguiling and clever at deceiving those who seem closest to him.

John Boyne’s latest novel is an astonishing piece of art. I wouldn’t stop reading after only a couple of pages. As in other novels before, he is brilliant at creating interesting and outstanding characters who act in a perfectly natural and authentic way. But also the set-up of “A Ladder to The Sky” superb: first, he gives the characters a voice who have fallen for Maurice; we only get the view of the outside and just as the narrators, we as the readers, too, are deceived by Maurice and feel anger and fury because of his shameless behaviour. It is only in the last part that Maurice himself gets to tell his view.

I assume the title is an allusion to the famous “Ladder of fortune”, at least it strongly reminded me of it. Yet, Maurice shows that it doesn’t need honesty and morality to succeed, riches and reputation also come if you are clever at deceiving and manipulating others and if you are cold-blooded enough to betray you own wife.

Apart from the outstanding characters and the noteworthy structure, I also highly appreciate Boyne’s style of writing. It’s sublime and moving and you get the impression that he really cares for his characters – maybe not that much for the evil Maurice. The plot twists and turns and even though you often already have a bad feeling of what might come, you don’t want to believe that this could actually happen. It hurts at times, but this makes it just more authentic.

Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation

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Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Looking at her from the outside, she has everything one could wish for: she is blond, pretty, thin, a Columbia graduate, stylish without effort and she has a job at a gallery. Due to her inheritance, she can afford an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But that’s just one side of the medal, her relationship with Trevor has been all but healthy, her parents never showed any affection and thus losing them both when she was in college was a minor affair. What she is lacking is an aim in life, something that gives her a reason for being alive. She feels exhausted and just wants to sleep until everything is over. She slowly extends her time in bed, she even falls asleep at work and then, finally, she decides to hibernate. A crazy therapist provides her with medication that allows more and more hours of sleep at a time. She hopes that after a year of rest, she will awake as somebody new.

Ottessa Moshfegh is a US-American writer who earned a degree in Creative Writing from Brown University and whose short stories were received with positive reviews. After her novella “McGLue”, her first novel “Eileen” was published in 2015 and made it on the shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Having chosen a mostly unsympathetic protagonist for her former novel, I found it much easier so sympathise with her narrator in “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”.

The young woman who is portrayed is quite typical in a certain way. She is the modern New Yorker who takes part in the glittery art circus, is a part of a subculture of believes itself to be highly reflective and innovative. At a certain point, the superficiality becomes exhausting and the aimless tittle-tattle and prattle don’t provide any deeper insight.

“The art at Ducat was supposed to be subversive irreverent, shocking, but was all just canned counterculture crap, “punk, but with money”.

Also her relationship does not go beyond superficial sex and one-night-stands that lead to nothing. Added to this is the easy availability of all kinds of drugs, of therapists who themselves are too crazy to detect any serious illness in their clients and therefore just fill in any prescription they are asked for. Even though the plot starts in 2000, the characters are quite typical for the 1990s and they need a major event to wake them up and bring them back to real life.

The narrator tries to flee the world and takes more and more pills mixed with each other, as a result she is sleepwalking, even gets a new haircuts and orders masses of lingerie without knowing. Her radius is limited to her blog, her only human contacts are the Egyptians at the bodega at the corner where she buys coffee, the doorman of her apartment house and Reva, her best friend who still cares about her. Even though she is bothered by the things she does when she is not awake, she has become that addicted that she cannot let go anymore.

Even though the protagonist is highly depressive and seeing how badly she copes with her life is hard to endure in a way, the novel is also hilarious. I especially liked her meetings with her therapist since Dr. Tuttle is riotous in her eccentric ways and their dialogues are highly comical – despite the earnestness of their actual topics. Ottessa Moshfegh most certainly earns a place among to most relevant authors of today.

Anna Quindlen – Alternate Side

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Anna Quindlen – Alternate Side

They have the life many people dream of: Nora and Charlie Nolan live in New York city in a quiet dead-end street, their twins Rachel and Oliver have become charming and successful students and both Nora and Charlie are good at their respective jobs. In their street, they have made friends with the neighbours during annual barbecues and the like and from the outside, there is not much you could wish for. However, underneath the surface, the idyllic street has its fights, like very neighbourhood, there is the controlling neighbour whom nobody ever openly contradicts, there are rumours and the nannies also exchange the secrets and share them with their employers. Nora and Charlie have always worked well as a couple, but after almost 25 years, there is a kind of exhaustion, they do not share the same ideas of life anymore and after a major incident in their street which makes them take different sides, they too, have to confront the question if they want to and can go on like this.

Anna Quindlen has an eye for the detail. Even though her story is set in big New York City, the plot is centred around a small community that could be found almost everywhere. It is the clash between the look from the outside and the real picture that makes the novel most striking, the almost invisible fractures, the divergent views which become only detectable when something big happens.

“Alternate Sides” is the perfect summer read, on the one hand, it is a light novel, not too complicated or philosophical, but taken from life and straight-forward in the development of the plot. On the other hand, you have a sympathetic protagonist whom you can easily identify with. You follow Nora and she is immediately likeable, even though she’s got quite an exclusive job, she is like to woman from next door, ignorant of classes and anxious to raise her kids to become good people. Neither does she immediately explode when she feels provoked by her husband, nor does she take in everything without disagreeing.

Since everybody knows how well-off neighbourhoods work, you can smirk at how the inhabitants of this street react, much too predictable, but that’s just how humans work. At times, they are hilarious – Charlie’s joy when he gets a parking spot in the street! – at times, they remind you of the people from you real life that you despise. Even though there are many serious issues underneath the surface of the novel, it is a joyful and entertaining read.

Laura van den Berg – The Third Hotel

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Laura van den Berg – The Third Hotel

Clara travels to Havana, Cuba, to attend a film festival. She is there on professional terms she tells the people, but actually, she works as a sales representative for ThyssenKrupp. She watches a horror movie, Revolución Zombi, due to its renowned director and she is looking for Richard – her lately deceased husband who was actually working on film. During her endless search, memories come up, the last days together with Richard before he was killed in an accident, their wedding day, her childhood when her parents owned a hotel in Florida that she roamed like a ghost.

Just as Clare wanders the streets of Havana, so do her thoughts and the reader accompanies her in her search which will lead to nothing – quite the contrary, the longer she roams, the more she herself seems to get lost. At times, she is self-conscious, understands exactly what is going on, that her mind is in exceptional circumstances due to the loss she has just experienced, but then again, she is talking to Richard as if he stood right next to her.

“The Third Hotel” – the name Clara gives her accommodation in Havana since twice before the taxi driver had taken her to the wrong one – is a psychological study in what can happen to a person whose life is turned upside down. Even the simplest things become obstacles hard to overcome:

“What was she doing in Havana? A simple question and yet she could not find a simple answer.”

Clare experiences as she calls it a “dislocation from reality”. There are phone calls when the phone never rings, there are people at the other end of the line that could be herself – she is lost in a parallel world that collides with other peoples’ reality but then again, there are walls that clearly separate those two spaces. Towards the end, a short dialogue perfectly sums up how Clare feels:

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, Clare said, with bitterness.

What doesn’t kill you leaves you alive, Richard countered. (…)

What doesn’t kill you only leaves you feeling broken and insane.”

She is not herself anymore, just like her father who also suffered metal degeneration, she at times cannot differentiate between what’s real and what’s imagined anymore.

The strongest parts of the novel are the descriptions, Laura van den Berg has an eye for the detail and particularly for the sensory aspects. Her protagonist might be gone mad, but her feelings are real. Apart from this, I liked the travel metaphors a lot. The characters are constantly moving in the novel, everybody is travelling, alone in a group, going here and there, on trains, buses, airplanes – yet, does anybody every arrive? Figuratively, aren’t we all relentlessly roaming and searching for our self, not knowing if we ever arrive?

Daisy Johnson – Everything Under

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Daisy Johnson – Everything Under

Gretel does not grow up like other kids do. Her mother is different, they live on a boat, stop here and there and they even invent their own language. After the mother’s sudden disappearance, Gretel is left on her own devices and has to find a place in the world. The early fascination for words quite naturally makes her a lexicographer, a very lonesome job in which she updates dictionary entries. Even though she hadn’t been in contact with her mother for more than sixteen years, she hasn’t forgotten her and always feared that she might be the person behind a newspaper article about a fatal accident. When they are re-united, also the long lost memories of their former time together come back.

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel is nominated on the Man Booker Prize 2018 longlist, itself already an honour, but even more so for an author at the age of only 28. It only takes a few pages into the novel to see why it easily could persuade the judges: it is wonderfully written, poetic and shows a masterly use of language:

 

“I’d always felt that our lives could have gone in multiple directions, that the choices you made forced them into turning out the way they did. But maybe there were no choices; maybe there were no other outcomes.”

Gretel’s has never been easily and having found her mother, seriously marked by her illness, doesn’t make it easier since she will never get answers but has to live with how her life turned out.

What I found most striking was how Daisy Johnson easily transgresses boundaries in her novel: being female or male – does it actually matter? If you call a person Marcus or Margot, it’s just the same, you immediately recognize the person behind the label. Sarah and Gretel live on the water and on land, they blend in nature and don’t see a line between man and animal or plants, it’s just all there. The language itself also doesn’t know any limits; if need be, create new words to express what you want to say. And there is this creature, a fantastic being that can also exist either in Sarah’s mind or in this novel where so much is possible.

Just like Gretel and her brother Hansel who were left in the woods but managed to find a way out, Gretel follows the crumbs to her mother, retraces the journey they did when she was young and with the help of the people she meets, tries to make sense of her own and especially her mother’s life.

The structure is demanding since it springs backwards and forwards which I found difficult to follow at times. But the language’s smoothness and virtuosity compensate for this exceedingly.