Louisa Reid – The Poet

Louisa Reid – The Poet

Emma is 25 and a promising poet and PhD student at Oxford. She is researching into a long forgotten female poet named Charlotte Mew whose work she uncovered and analyses. When she, the girl from the north and a middle-class family, came to the prestigious college, she felt like not belonging, her accent revealed her background, but her professor Tom saw something in her. He didn’t tell her that he was still married with kids and she didn’t mind. Now, years later, she finds herself in a toxic relationship. The renowned professor knew how to manipulate the young woman with low self-esteem doubting herself. Despite the success with her own poems, he can exert control over her, her thinking and cleverly gaslights her. He goes even further until she reaches a point where she has to decide to either give up herself or fight.

Louisa Reid’s novel “The Poet” is the portrait of a young woman who encountered the wrong man at the wrong time. She falls for her teacher who is charming, who sparks something in her, who makes her feel special and talented. Yet, she does not realise at which point this positive energy turns into the negative and when his second face is revealed. The power he has over her, the power his position attributes him, bring her into an inferior position from which it is hard to be believed and to escape.

The arrangement of power the author chooses is well-known: male vs. female, older vs. younger, rich background vs. middle class, academic vs. working class. All factors play out for Tom and from the start put him into the position of control. Emma, young and naive, is only too eager to succumb to it since she falls for his intellect and charm. He is idolised by students as well as his colleagues, quite naturally she is flattered by his attention.

On the other hand, we have the manipulative scholars who knows exactly what makes his female students tick. He has noticed Emma’s talent and knows how to profit from it. Systematically, he makes her feel inferior, stresses her weak points – her background, her family, the lack of money – keeps her from progressing with her work. He makes himself the Ubermensch in her view and manages to keep her close as he needs her, too. Not emotionally, but in a very different way.

Wonderfully written in verse and yet, it reads like a novel. Heart-wrenching at times, analytical at others the book immediately seduces and keeps you reading on.   

Julia May Jonas – Vladimir

Julia May Jonas – Vladimir

The unnamed 58-year-old narrator and her husband John have been teaching in the English department of a small college for years. From the start, they have found a relaxed way in their relationship, not asking too many questions, but being good partners and caring for their daughter. Now, however, a group of former students accuses John of having abused his power to lure them into affairs. At the same time, a new couple shows up at the college, Vladimir and his wife, both charismatic writers who both fascinate equally. The narrator immediately falls for Vladimir, even more after having read his novel, a feeling she hasn’t known for years and all this in the most complicated situation of her marriage.

Admittedly, I was first drawn to the book because of the cover that was used for another novel I read last year and liked a lot. It would have been a pity to overlook Julia May Jonas’ debut “Vladimir” which brilliantly captures the emotional rollercoaster of a woman who – despite her professional success and being highly esteemed – finds herself in exceptional circumstances and has to reassess her life.

Jonas’ novel really captures the zeitgeist of campus life and the big questions of where men and women actually stand – professionally as well as in their relationship. Even though the narrator has an equal job to her husband, she, after decades of teaching, is still only considered “his wife” and not an independent academic. That she, too, is highly affected in her profession by the allegations against her husband is simply a shame, but I fear that this is just how it would be in real life.

They had an agreement on how their relationship should look like, but now, she has to ask herself is this wasn’t one-sided. She actually had taken the classic role of wife and mother, caring much more for their daughter while he was pursuing his affairs. They had an intellectual bond which was stronger than the bodily but this raises questions in her now. Especially when she becomes aware of what creative potential her longing for Vladimir trigger in her.

A novel which provides a lot of food for thought, especially in the middle section when the narrator is confronted with professional consequences due to her husband’s misbehaviour. The author excellently captures the narrator’s oscillating thoughts and emotions making the novel a great read I’d strongly recommend.

Sara Novic – True Biz

Sara Novic – True Biz

Charlie has always been hearing impaired, her parents wanted her to be a normal girl and opted for an implant instead of catering for her special needs. As a result, the teenager is excluded from communication and learning as her implant never worked properly. It is only at the River Valley School for the Deaf that she discovers a world that she had been shut out from. She learns to sign and finds friends. Even though the school is a safe haven, this does not mean that people there are without problems and even golden boy Austin whose deaf family is something like a star in their community has to fight with mixed emotions when his baby sister is born hearing.

Sara Novic opens a world which is widely unknown. “True Biz” not only narrates the story of teenagers who – like any other – have their fights with their parents but also struggle with who they are and who they want to be. Being impaired does not make this easier. Along those lines the novel opens the discussion about how to live in a society with high superficial standards when it comes to being considered “normal” and the tricky question about what is best for a child.

Even though I was aware of some of the problems pupils face with limited hearing capacities in average schools, Charlie’s situation of being withhold proper means of communication is repelling. It would be easy to blame her parents, yet, their intentions were good, but good isn’t always the best. The same is true for the complicated case of Austin’s baby sister, decisions have to be made where there is not really a best way to go.

One scene sticks especially with my memory. When the baby is born and Austin asked if she is ok, his father answers that she is perfect. Not too strange a reply, yet, the girl is hearing whereas Austin is not. Does this distinction make him less perfect for his parents, underlining the widespread notion of only the physically not impaired are the ones to be happy about.

Characters that are loveable and sympathetic to follow make it easy to understand their reasoning and view of the world. A lot of information is integrated adding to the book’s enlightening for the reader. A great read in so many respects that I can only highly recommend it.

Lara Williams – The Odyssey

Lara Williams – The Odyssey

It’s been five years now that Ingrid has left her husband and former life to work on board the luxury cruise liner WA. She regularly has to rotate between the different departments and thus has become an expert of the ship and knows every corner. With Mia and her brother Ezra, she has befriended two colleagues with whom she passes her limited free time. When she is selected for a mentorship programme and promoted to manager, things become more complicated between them, Mia is obviously envious of her friend’s new position. Yet, Ingrid is not sure if she can fulfil the high expectations of Keith, captain and guru of the team. But she is willing to give all – and that is more than you could ever imagine.

After having finished reading “The Odyssey”, I was left wondering and confused. Lara Williams’ novel was a hilarious read until it wasn’t anymore. It is somehow a totally exaggerated caricature of the cruise ship and well-being industries and on the other hand, from the middle of the novel on, I was wondering if the plot actually takes place on a cruise ship or if much rather the staff are actually patients of a psychiatric ward for whom the “cruise ship” is a kind of simulation of real life.

The cruise liner offer all a tourist might want to ask, there is no need to leave it since you have several restaurants serving all tastes, all kinds of shops and treatments to make your stay a perfect break-out. It doesn’t matter that the staff is hardly trained, they are friendly and the guest is king. Just as the employees are pretend-professionals, all aboard is just fake and serving a superficial image of perfection. Had social media not been invented yet, this cruise liner would surely underline the need for it.

Ingrid’s past is slowly revealed throughout the novel. That she more or less fled her former life is obvious, however, the reasons remain in the dark for a long time. The non-life she leads has become the perfect escape and spending hours in her small cabin staring at the ceiling is all she wants to do. The mentorship programme forces her to get out of her cave and think about herself and her life. Keith is the ultimate travesty of a guru. His concept is quite limited but with enough cold water and matcha tea he can create a spiritual atmosphere to impress his underlings.

This might all be very funny if it wasn’t for the fact that it seemed much too real to me. Even though the cruise ship is a special setting, what happens there is not too far from our life that has become more online fake than real for many and where behind the sparkly facade, you can find highly insecure and troubled people. Reckless gurus can easily become leaders spreading their nonsense and making masses of people follow their rules not matter how senseless.

A novel you can laugh out loud while reading but which leaves you with an uneasy feeling when thinking about what you’ve just read.

Christian Huber – Man vergisst nicht, wie man schwimmt

Christian Huber – Man vergisst nicht, wie man schwimmt

Es ist der 31. August 1999. Pascal genannt Krüger und sein Freund Viktor sind 15 und wollen einen der letzten warmen Sommertage genießen. Es wird ein Tag und eine Nacht, die emotional ein ganzes Leben sein könnten: sie haben Spaß, kommen in Gefahr, erleben die erste Liebe, verlieren beinahe ihr Außenseiterimage – aber vor allem wird ihre langjährige Freundschaft gleich mehrfach auf die Probe gestellt. Es ist der Tag, der ihr Leben verändern wird und an den sich Pascal sein Leben lang, selbst als er schon längst erwachsen ist und zurückblickt, erinnern wird, als wenn es gestern gewesen wäre.

Christian Huber ist mit verschiedenen Comedy-Formaten bekannt geworden, auch sein Podcast „Gefühlte Fakten“ gehört zu den erfolgreichsten des Landes. „Man vergisst nicht, wie man schwimmt“ ist ein Coming-of-Age Roman, der die emotionale Achterbahnfahrt der Zeit auf wenige Stunden verdichtet und auch ein wenig Nostalgie ob der Zeit von Oasis, Nokia Handys und unendlichen Sommerferien mitschwingen lässt.

Der Ich-Erzähler Pascal wird von allen nur Krüger genannt, warum bleibt zunächst sein Geheimnis, es muss aber damit zusammenhängen, dass er nicht mehr schwimmen geht und immer auch zwei T-Shirts übereinander trägt. Die schwierigen Familienverhältnisse von ihm und Viktor werden immer wieder angedeutet, im Vordergrund steht jedoch der einschneidende Tag, der minutiös berichtet wird. Es sind ganz banale, typische Erlebnisse, zu denen sich jedoch auch die ganz großen unerwarteten gesellen.

Krüger stößt mit der Ladendiebin Jacky zusammen und die beiden Jungs folgen den faszinierenden Mädchen zu dem Zirkus, mit dem sie durch das Land reist. Am folgenden Tag wird die abreisen und für immer verschwinden – nicht viele Stunden, die reichen jedoch, um in Krüger alles zu verändern.

Der Roman reiht sich in eine ganze Riege von Sommerferienerzählungen ein, die prägend sind für die Protagonisten, für mich in etwa wie Ewald Arenz‘ „Der große Sommer“ und Benedict Wells‘ „Hard Land“. Man folgt den beiden Jungen gerne, durchlebt mit ihnen ihre Abenteuer zwischen jugendlichem Übermut und der bekannten Unsicherheit, die gleichermaßen mit ihr einhergeht.

Große Emotionen, die einem sofort einfangen und mitnehmen auf die Reise durch einen die Welt der Protagonisten verändernden Tag.

Chloë Ashby – Wet Paint

Cloe Ashby – We Paint

Eve has lost her mother when she left the 5-year-old and her father and never made contact again. Even though she somehow managed to cope with this experience, losing her best friend Grace totally throws her off the track. At 26, she is waiting in a bar despite having studied art at Oxford. Yet, she does not keep that job for long, just like any other job or the flat she shares. Nothing seems to linger in her life except for the painting she visits over and over again in a London museum and Max, a teenage friend. But even for Max it becomes increasingly harder to see how Eve throws away her life and does not accept any help.

Chloë Ashby’s debut novel brilliantly captures the protagonist’s being lost in the world after the death of a beloved friend that she has never gotten over. “Wet Paint” shows a young woman in survival mode who is far from unleashing her potential as she is straying in her life without aim or goal, from time to time colliding with reality but more often lost in thought and locked away in herself.

Eve is incapable of good relationships as she is far from being at ease with herself. Connecting with other people, being honest and really caring for them is impossible for her in state she is in. The only other being she shows real affection for is the young girl she babysits, but here, too, she is too lost in her thoughts and puts herself and the girl in danger.

The only constant in her life is a painting she observes closely and which calms her. Just the thought of the museum closing for a holiday makes her get nervous and when the museum loans her beloved pieces of art to another one, she almost freaks out, losing the last straw in her life.

It is not easy to watch how a young woman, lovable despite the way she treats others, is going down the abyss, yet, you can only help those that want to be helped. That’s what some characters also experience, they really care for her but can’t do anything to as long as she refuses to acknowledge her situation and to take necessary measures to improve her situation.

Not an easy read but in my opinion an authentic representation of the protagonist’s state of emergency.

Norah Lange – People in the Room

Norah Lange – People in the Room

Die 17-jährige Ich-Erzählerin lebt mit ihrer Familie in der Avenida Cabildo in Belgrano, einem Stadtteil von Buenos Aires, wo sie zufällig im gegenüberliegenden Haus drei Frauen beobachtet. Jeden Abend sitzen diese in ihrem Wohnzimmer ohne die Läden zu schließen, so dass jeder sie sehen kann. Das heimliche Beobachten wird zur Obsession, die Erzählerin traut sich kaum mehr, das Haus zu verlassen oder von ihrem Tagesablauf abzuweichen aus Sorge, dass ihr etwas entgehen könnte. Bis sie zufällig eines Tages einen Postjungen abfängt und von ihm ein Telegramm annimmt, dass an die drei Frauen adressiert ist. Ein Besucher wird angekündigt, wer könnte dies sein? Und ist das die Gelegenheit, Kontakt mit den drei Unbekannten aufzunehmen?

Norah Lange wurde als Tochter eines norwegischen Ingenieurs und einer irisch-norwegischen Mutter in Argentinien geboren. Sie wuchs mit den literarischen Größen ihrer Heimat auf, denn Autoren wie Borges besuchten den regelmäßig stattfindenden Salon ihrer Mutter, der sie früh mit der Poesie in Kontakt brachte. Es sind weniger ihre Romane, die sie bekannt gemacht haben, als der exzentrische Lebensstil an der Seite des Journalisten und Schriftstellers Oliverio Girondo, obwohl auch ihre Werke vielfach ausgezeichnet wurden. „People in the Room“ erschien erstmals 1950, eine deutsche Übersetzung scheint es leider nicht zu geben, dabei reiht der Roman sich literarisch locker in die Reihe von beispielsweise Werken von Henry James oder James Joyce ein: ein nicht enden wollender Stream of Consciousness, der das Innenleben der Protagonistin offenlegt.

Die Handlung des Romans ist überschaubar, es sind im Wesentlichen die Beobachtungen und die sich daraus entspinnenden Gedanken. Die Erzählerin steigert sich immer mehr in ihre heimliche Observation, entwickelt regelrecht Angst davor, dass die drei Frauen plötzlich nicht mehr da sein oder gar sterben könnten. Immer irrationaler werden die Gedanken und bald fragt man sich, ob es die Frauen überhaupt gibt, oder ob sich nicht viel mehr alles nur im Kopf der Erzählerin zuträgt. Immer mehr verdichten sich die Anzeichen, dass sie halluziniert und phantasiert – doch sichere Belege dafür oder dagegen gibt es nicht.

Für heutige Zeiten ein eher untypischer Roman, aber als Zeugnis seiner Zeit mehr als überzeugend und fraglos lesenswert.

Catherine Prasifka – None of this is Serious

Catherine Prasifka – None of this is Serious

Sophie has just finished her degree in political science and falls in some kind of void between being a student and the future which is totally blurred. All her friends seem to have a plan while she is still meandering and feels left behind. She is waiting for something to happen when one evening, there is a crack in the sky. Quickly the internet is full of photos and comments that she obsessively follows. While the earth does not know what to make if this and if it should be treated like a threat, Sophie’s life goes on or rather: it doesn’t. She has been in love with Finn for a long time, but he is more interested in other women and only needs her for the time between. And then there is Rory who is attentive and nice, albeit a bit boring. Even when the sky opens, Sophie is stuck and cannot advance in her life, so she escapes into the online world.

Catherine Prasifka’s debut novel “None of this is Serious” strongly reminded me of Sally Rooney’s books, not just because it is also set in Dublin and the protagonists are at a similar point in their life, also the style of writing shows a lot of parallels. Just like her sister-in-law, she portrays a generation who is lost when they should finally start their adult life and who struggles of coping with the expectations of their families and the online community which provides them with ideals they should adhere to.

“I refresh the feed every minute and continue to consume, growing fat. I’m like a vampire, leeching off the content of other people’s lives. I’m not even really interested in anything I’m reading.”

Having finished college and waiting for the final results, Sophie has too much time she spends online following her friends but also the comments on the crack. The first thing she does after waking up is checking her twitter feed, the last thing she does before falling asleep is checking her feed. She is addicted and unable to live her real life. Online, she can hide behind the invisible wall, she feels secure when chatting with Rory or others, when meeting them in person, she becomes insecure, shy, and totally inhibited. Without booze, she is totally unable of having any normal conversation at all.

It is not only their struggle with romantic life, successful relationships are rare in her circle of friends, it is also professional life which stresses them out. Finding a job is hard, even harder to find one which would allow them to move out of their parents’ house. Being treated like children, they cannot actually grow up and thus find themselves stuck. They just have their polished social media lives which only make the others feel even worse as they cannot see behind the blinking facade.

I could totally relate to Sally Rooney’s protagonists even though I am a couple of years older. It was much harder for me to sympathise with Sophie as she is much too passive and has made herself comfortable in lamenting her situation without doing something against it. Her best friend accuses her of being selfish and arrogant, an opinion I would agree with. She is too self-involved to notice others and pathetically cries over and over again.

“None of this is Serious” is a perfectly contradictory title as the characters’ believe that nothing they do is of any consequence, thus they remain stuck and constantly hurt each other as they are not the superficial beings who can just put away everything they experience. I do believe the author well captured a generation and their feelings of a hopeless or rather no future.

Anne Tyler – French Braid

Anne Tyler – French Braid

It is coincidental encounter at a station: Serena sees a young man and is not sure if he’s her cousin. Her boyfriend cannot believe this, how can she not know her own cousin? Well, family matters have never been easy with the Garretts. Robin and Mercy have married at a young age, their two daughters Alice and Lily could hardly be more different from each other and their son David, a couple of years younger than the girls, even as a boy, was rather withdrawn. As the years pass by, the kids get older and independent, have their own families, make mistakes, Mercy follows her artistic works and drifts apart from Robin. It is only rare events that bring the whole family together for brief moments, but then, they remain on the surface and the important things are left unsaid.

Anne Tyler has been writing books for almost six decades, but I have only come to detect her work a couple of years ago. What I liked from the start was her relaxed tone which takes life just as it is, acknowledging the ups and downs, knowing that the show has to go on. Her latest novel, too, “French Braid” is wonderfully narrated capturing the small but decisive moments. It is the portrait of a family, not the totally average one but nevertheless one that could just live next door to you. Again, Tyler finds the interesting points in those at the first glance totally average lives.

“What’s the name of that braid that starts high up on little girls’ heads?” David asked Greta one night (…) “Oh a French braid,” Greta said. “That’s it. And then when she undid them, her hair would still be in ripples, little leftover squiggles, for hours and hours afterwards. “ “Yes…” “Well,” David said, “That’s how families work, too. You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.”

None of the Garretts have ever been close, not even the married couples, but nevertheless, they are family and therefore gather from time to time. They may not even like each other, but they like to stay informed. Some of them try to break out, especially the women, but just like the French braid, they cannot really free themselves, some things just stick.

Anne Tyler surely is a most accomplished writer, how else would it be possible to totally enjoy a novel and at the same time feel a little bit uncomfortable due to the extent you can recognise yourself in her writing. She does not focus on the exceptional, the outstanding, but finds the aspects worth mentioning in the ordinary, in the well-known and hardly ever actually noticed. It is with her soft voice and quite narration that she hints at what you should look at and think about. Another though-provoking, simply marvellous novel.  

Yoko Ogawa – The Memory Police

Yoko Ogawa – The Memory Police

Eine unbenannte Insel, abgeschnitten vom Rest der Welt. Die Protagonistin ist Autorin und seit dem Tod ihrer Eltern alleine und zurückgezogen in ihrem Elternhaus. Über der Insel liegt ein Fluch, der die Menschen nicht nur vieles vergessen, sondern vor allem immer wieder Dinge verschwinden lässt. Vieles fällt fast gar nicht auf, bei anderen Dingen arrangiert man sich und hat bald schon keine Erinnerung mehr daran, dass es sie einmal gab. Einige Menschen jedoch können nicht vergessen und wissen, was verloren geht. Sie werden von der Memory Police systematisch aufgespürt und verschleppt, wie die Mutter der Protagonistin. Auch ihr Lektor ist davon bedroht, weshalb sie ihn kurzerhand in ihrem Keller versteckt. Mit Hilfe ihres alten Nachbarn versuchen sie, dem Schicksal zu entkommen und immer wieder gibt es kleine Momente, die Vergangenes aufblitzen lassen, aber das Schicksal, das ihnen droht, scheint letztlich unausweichlich.

Yoko Ogawa ist seit dem Ende der 1980er Jahre in ihrer japanischen Heimat eine vielbeachtete und ausgezeichnete Autorin. Der dystopische Roman „The Memory Police“ (dt. Titel: „Insel der verlorenen Erinnerung“) erschien bereits 1994, wurde aber erst 2019 ins Englische übersetzt, womit er auch der westlichen Welt zugänglich, mit Begeisterung aufgenommen und für zahlreiche namhafte Literaturpreise nominiert wurde. Der Roman wird vor allem von der düsteren Atmosphäre getragen, die auf das Ende der Menschheit hindeutet und in der scheinbar nichts die drohende Auslöschung, samt aller Erinnerung an das, was einmal gewesen ist, aufhalten kann.

Die Autorin wählt ein klassisches Szenario, in dem sie ihre Geschichte ansiedelt. Es gibt scheinbar keine Welt außerhalb der Insel, die Kontrolle durch den Staat und die Memory Police ist streng und erbarmungslos. Es kann jeden jederzeit treffen, selbst wer ein unauffälliges Leben gemäß den Regeln führt, kann sie nie ganz in Sicherheit wähnen. Ein paar Auserwählten jedoch ist ein anderer Blick gegönnt, der sie in größte Gefahr bringt.

Ogawas Stil ist schnörkellos und passt zu der unbarmherzigen Umgebung, die nach dem Verlust der Kalender für immer im kalten Winter feststeckt. Die Protagonistin versucht dennoch Routinen aufrechtzuerhalten, auch wenn dies immer schwieriger wird, denn als Schriftstellerin ist sie auch Worte angewiesen, die jedoch mit dem Verschwinden der Dinge immer weniger werden. Die Welt reduziert sich sukzessive. Die Handlung spielt fast ausschließlich in dem kleinen Haus und beschränkt sich weitgehend auf die drei Figuren während die Welt außerhalb verschwindet. Tiere, Pflanzen und bald auch der Mensch.

Die Auslöschung der Welt – bei Yoko Ogawa ist es eine undefinierte Kraft, die jedoch von Menschen unterstützt wird. Kein Vögel mehr? Egal, sind ohnehin bald vergessen. Sprache? Ist auch verzichtbar. Drastisch führt sie uns vor, wohin die Reduktion des Lebensraums führt, was wir mit der Umweltzerstörung riskieren zu verlieren und wie wir unser eigenes Habitat unmenschlich gestalten – bis wir selbst uns letztlich auslöschen. Ein eindrucksvoller Roman, der in bester Tradition des Genres steht und dieses überzeugend ergänzt.