Ali Smith – Summer

Ali Smith – Summer

The seasonal quartet comes to a conclusion with “Summer” which is set in the troubling spring of 2020. Teenagers Sacha and Robert know about the problems the planet faces, not just the virus which locks them down, but climate change, the refugee crisis, Brexit and the unreliability of media and the political class make them ponder about the times they are living in. But it is not only the big issues that trouble the siblings, also the typical quarrels of brother and sister and their parents’ separation occupy their minds. But other times, too, challenged people and nevertheless lead to great outcomes.

Once more, just like in her former novels, not only the ones belonging to the quartet, there is so much in it which makes it really difficult to review. Many aspects mentioned are worth commenting on, in the first place, Ali Smith’s writing, again, is simply marvellous, the way she uses language in this specific novel also moves to a metalevel discussing words and the ability to express oneself also without using oral language. In a times when words are misused to blind and mislead people – some doing this even quite overtly – you have to become even more careful with what you say and easily realise that maybe the language as we know and use it is not enough anymore.

I really adored her characters in this novel, first and foremost Robert, even though he also behaves, quite typical for his age, nasty at times. He is on the brink of losing his childish innocence, clever as he is, he asks questions and investigates and even though only 13 years old, can brilliantly analyse the politicians’ deceit. When investigating Einstein, a mastermind he admires for his scientific achievement, he also becomes aware of the fact that sometimes, people can have two sides at the same time which might be difficult to bring together.

Topics which were addressed in the former parts are now picked up again and thus, “Summer” forms a perfect conclusion. Even with the sheer mass of big problems, Smith’s novel provides hope, especially with the young generation portrayed here. They are heroes and have the capacity of making a change. For Sacha, climate activists, NHS workers and Black Lives Matter protesters are heroes according to her definition:

“I have a vision that the modern sense of being a hero is like shining a bright light on things that need to be seen. I guess that if someone does this it brings its own consequences.”

In her understanding, everybody can become a hero, we only have to start.

Fredrik Backman – Anxious People

Fredrik Backman – Anxious People

A story about a bank robbery. Or about an apartment viewing. Or about a bridge. Or about a hostage drama. Or about a father and his son. Or about a mother and her daughters. Or people who make a poor decision. Anxious people who are not sure if they will see tomorrow and if so, what tomorrow will bring. After the bank robbery went totally wrong, the bank robber storms into an apartment viewing and takes all the prospective buyers hostage. Unsure of what to do since this wasn’t planned at all, the situation gradually gets out of control since the captives are prepared to do a lot, but not being kept hostage, at least not by a failed robber. On the opposite side, two policemen, father and son, have to cope with the situation which becomes highly complicated when they realise that the robber has obviously vanished into thin air after the captives have been freed. Some of them must have helped the robber to escape, but who and, more importantly: why?

I have totally adored all novels written by Fredrik Backman and also his latest did not disappoint: a brilliantly constructed plot with highly lovable characters and – as expected – a wonderful narrator who puts the story into the right perspective. Backman is one of those authors who creates those characters at the fringe, who are a bit different, maybe even strange, who do not easily socialise but who, if you take a closer look, are adorable and at the core, just good people.

It is all but easy to tell a story full of human drama with a light-hearted tone which makes you laugh out loud and keeps your spirit high even though the characters’ lives are actually a sequence of disappointments and failures. Their ways cross several times, not too unexpectedly in a small Swedish town, and with each encounter, if they are aware of it or not, trigger a slight change. The exceptional circumstances provide them with a chance of opening up, of telling their story and secrets and realising that they are actually not alone with the ghosts who haunt them.

Fredrik Backman surely is an outstanding writer with not only an eye for the fascinating detail which is easily overlooked but, first and foremost, an advocate for the seeming odd characters who deserve a closer inspection because they actually have great stories to tell.

Anna Bruno – Ordinary Hazards

Anna Bruno – Ordinary Hazards

THE FINAL FINAL has been Emma’s and Lucas’ preferred bar for years. But on her 35th birthday, Emma isn’t anymore the woman she used to be. She is drinking alone, acknowledging the other regulars and thinking about what has gone wrong in her life during the last couple of years. Her professional choice which deeply annoyed her success-oriented father, her marriage with Lucas which was never easy but also not too bad, the happiness when their son Lionel was born. And now she is sitting in a bar drinking and ignoring the texts from her friend Grace who seemingly has arranged something for her birthday. The more the evening advances the more the tension in the bar rises and unexpectedly, she learns things which lead to a dramatic end.

What I liked most about Anna Bruno’s novel were first, the atmosphere of the bar and second, the development of the protagonist. On the one hand, we have a place where you typically do not find an average single woman drinking alone. At first, everybody is friendly, they have known each other for years but keep a natural distance, they are only bar acquaintances it seems with no further connection and know not to trespass the personal sphere of each other. Over the course of time, you learn more about the other guests and slowly the heat is rising. This comes quite as a surprise which only underlines how perfectly this has been developed.

The whole plot centres around Emma and her pondering. It does not take too long to understand that something important must have happened that lead to the separation and deeply impacted her psychological state. It is just those things that happen in life, evidently ordinary hazards.

I loved the structure of the novel, having two timelines interwoven which each other which culminate in a distressing climax. Vividly narrated at a moderate pace, I really enjoyed delving into it.

Rosie Price – What Red Was

Rosie Price – What Red Was

It is their first week at university when Max and Kate realise not only that they live on the same floor but that they are soul mates. They can hardly be separated anymore, they are friends, not lovers, but closer than you could ever be. They share the love for film and any secret. Even though their backgrounds couldn’t be more different, Kate from the countryside modestly raised by her mother whereas Max’ parents are successful and quite rich. Yet, one evening changes everything when Max’ cousin Lewis, who has eyed their friendship jealously for years, thinks he can take whatever he wants: Kate. The young woman falls into a deep hole. Afterwards, there is not much left of the creative and lively art student; suffering from a severe depression and increasingly self-harming herself, she does not find a way to confide in somebody. She has always been more insecure than others but now, she has lost her footing.

Rosie Price’s book starts out like a wonderful college novel. The immediate friendship between Kate and Max is mesmerising, it is really enchanting to see how two strangers can get along so well and form mutual trust without hesitation. But then the tide turns and so does the atmosphere. What I liked about it was the fact that the author does not use any direct brutal violence to describe what happens to Kate but focuses much more on the effect this traumatic experience has on her.

“And so instead she said nothing, hoping that if she chose not to voice whatever it was that lodged in her chest, somewhere between her lungs and her heart, it would diminish; that its toxicity might find its own means of excreting itself from her body”

The protagonist does not break down immediately, she keeps on going and to a certain extent is capable of deceiving the people around her and pretending everything is fine. I guess this is the trickiest part of such an experience that you cannot see what is going on inside somebody’s head and if you are not really closely observing, the actual emotional state might go unnoticed. A positive aspect, on the other hand, is that help comes from an unexpected person and that ultimately, Kate finds a way of opening up and talking to somebody about what is going on with her. In my opinion, the representation of Kate’s state of mind is quite accurate and also how she tries to hint at what happens but is not understood.

The story might trigger destructive memories in some readers, nevertheless I would definitely recommend reading the novel since it provides insight how a woman might become a victim in a supposedly safe environment and how these assaults might go unnoticed and the perpetrators get away with it.

Akwaeke Emezi – The Death of Vivek Oji

akwaeke emezi the death of vivek oji
Akwaeke Emezi – The Death of Vivek Oji

When they hear some noise outside, Kavita opens the door and finds her son Vivek dead on the porch. There was some commotion at the local market and Vivek had wanted to go there where he obviously was killed. But who would ever want to do something to her beloved son? Yes, he had always been different, a bit strange which also made it hard for his cousin and childhood best friend Osita who witnessed strange occurrences such as Vivek’s mind wandering away and making him believe being a different person. And that’s just what he was, secretly, without his parents’ knowledge. But Osita, too, has some secrets he keeps from his and Vivek’s family, some just because they do not fit in their village’s idea of a young man’s life, others because they would be impossible to endure for anybody.

Just like in her novel “Freshwater”, “The Death of Vivek Oji” centres around a young protagonist who differs, whose mind works in a very singular way, yet, Vivek’s is less extraordinary than Ada’s. Nevertheless, the main conflict is placed between the individual and society: a person who does not comply with general expectations and cannot really reveal his emotions and most certainly cannot live the way he would prefer since this simply does not work in the place he lives.

“We can’t keep insisting he was who we thought he was, when he wanted to be someone else and he died being that person, Chicka. We failed, don’t you see?”

The story is told in flashbacks to describe the long road that lead to Vivek’s death. Alternately, Vivek and Osita narrate from their point of view what they experienced and how they felt. Both are trapped somehow since there are things they cannot talk about to anybody except for each other, at the same time, it is difficult for Osita to support Vivek’s otherness. The struggles they go through are very well established and easy to relate to. From a western perspective, it is incredible what is done to Vivek, especially the exorcism performed on him, but there are still places where binary thinking is the rule.

There is some mystery to solve, yet, it is much more about young people who are trying to figure out who they are and how they can live in a place where fixed rules and high expectations do not go well together with who they are. Even though it is, in the end, a rather sad story in many ways, I’d consider it a great and noteworthy read.

Kate Reed Petty – True Story

kate reed petty true story
Kate Reed Petty – True Story

Nick, Max and Richard are the members of the promising lacrosse team of their college. Apart from doing sports, partying is what they like most, getting drunk and making out with girls. After one especially wild party, rumours spread, but the versions of what happened vary. Richard and Max claim their innocence while Alice cannot really remember, but she is sure that her best friend Haley tells the truth when she asserts that immediately after the deed, the boys boasted about what they had done to her. Years go by, Richard turns into a rich businessman, also Haley made a career in the film industry. Things didn’t turn out that well for the others, Nick is closer to death by drinking or simply being stupid and Alice struggles forever with psychological problems stemming from the assumed assault. It will take years until the four of them confront again and the truth about what happened comes to the light.

One thing is absolutely sure: this novel was different from what I have read before. Normally, it is quite easy to put a plot into a genre or at the maximum having two combined, but here, it is a genre mix in which you never know where it will lead you and what the end might be. There is quite some suspense since the whole plot is moving towards the final confrontation – even though this is not really obvious for quite some time – but it is also really tragic when Alice’s part is told. It did not have that much sympathy for Nick admittedly, a character I more or less despised from the beginning. You make assumptions about what happened but you have to correct them repeatedly, which I liked a lot since this cleverly shows you based how a limited point of view one’s verdict quite often is.

There are several novels, apart from all the psychological books, which give some insight in how much impact an assault can have on a victim’s life. Here, too, Alice is completely thrown off the track after that night, the lively and joyful girl turns into a nervous and easy to exploit, insecure young woman. Richard, on the other hand, seems unaffected by the accusations, he goes to Princeton and makes a career to become the hottest bachelor of the country. Nick is not immediately affected, he is a friend confronted with the question if he should or could believe the boys’, whom he has known forever, version. Yet, he is an example of someone who was gifted and had a promising future but threw it all away with being lazy and preferring partying over working hard for his success.  In the end, you might even see him as a tragic character, but I wouldn’t say so, he had his chances but didn’t take them.

A novel I simply rushed through as I couldn’t put it down anymore once I had started. Quite an interesting approach and a very cleverly crafted plot made it a great read.

Avraham B. Yehoshua – The Tunnel

a.B. Yehoshua The tunnel
Avraham B. Yehoshua – The Tunnel

Slowly he is deteriorating and the verdict is clear: dementia. Zvi Luria, former road engineer, struggles with the diagnosis and the effects of the illness: increasingly, he is forgetting first names and once he could only be stopped at the last moment from picking up another boy than his grandchild from kindergarten. When he is invited to a farewell party of a former colleague, he visits his old office where he stumbles upon Asael Maimoni, the son of his last legal adviser, who is now occupying his post. Luria’s wife thinks it would be a good idea to get her husband’s brain filled with work again and thus he becomes Maimoni’s unpaid assistant in planning a tunnel in the Negev desert. When working on the road, he not only profits from his many years of experience that he can successfully use despite his slowly weakening memory, but he also learns a lot about his own country and the people he never tried to really get to know.

Yehoshua is one of the best known contemporary Israeli writers and professor of Hebrew Literature. He has been awarded numerous prizes for his work and his novels have been translated into many languages. Over and over again, Israel’s politics and the Jewish identity have been central in his works and this also plays an important part in his latest novel.

“The tunnel” addresses several discussion worthy topics. First of all, quite obviously, Luria’s dementia, what it does to him and how the old man and his surroundings cope with it. In an ageing society, this is something we all have come across and it surely isn’t an easy illness to get by since, on the one hand, physically, the people affected are totally healthy, but, on the other hand, the loss of memory gradually makes them lose independence and living with them becomes more challenging. If, like Luria, they are aware of the problems, this can especially hard if they had an intellectually demanding professional life and now experience themselves degraded to a child.

The second noteworthy aspect is the road-building which is quickly connected to the core Israeli question of how they treat non-Jewish residents and their culture. Not only an Arab family in hiding, due to a failed attempt to help them by a former commanding officer of the forces, opens Luria’s eyes on what is going on at the border clandestinely but with good intentions, but he also witnesses how officials treat the nomad tribe of Nabateans and their holy sites.

On a more personal level, the novel also touches questions of guilt and bad conscience as well as the possibility of changing your mind and behaviour even at an older age.

Wonderfully narrated with an interesting and loveable protagonist, it was a great joy to read this novel that I can highly recommend.

Ali Smith – Spring

ali smith spring
Ali Smith – Spring

Just as the years moves on so does Ali Smith with the third volume of her seasonal quartet. Now, its spring time, the time of the year between death and re-birth, between the end and a new beginning. A promising time, but also a time which can surprise and is hard to foresee. This time, we meet Richard, an elderly filmmaker who is still shaken by his former colleague and friend Patricia Heal’s death. He remembers his last visits when she was already between here and there. Richard is standing on a train platform with clearly suicidal intentions when a girl and a custody officer rush by. Florence and Brittany are headed for a place which they assume somewhere in Scotland, on their journey this unusual couple also addresses the big questions of life and humanity which Brittany can hardly find in the prison she works where the detainees are dehumanised and not even granted the least bit of privacy.

Just like the two novels before in this quartet, Ali Smith captures the mood of the country at a very critical point. In my opinion, “Spring” is absolutely outstanding since it has several layers of narrative, it is philosophical, literary, sociological, psychological, political – an eclectic mix of thoughts and notions that come together or rather have to be put together by the reader. While, on the one hand, being were close to an archaic understanding of the concept of time and the natural course of a year, there are many references to artists and the imaginary world.

Underlying the whole novel is a certain despair – Richard’s grieve, Britt’s disillusion with her job, Florence’s detachedness from humans which makes her almost invisible – in a time of political shaky times: Brexit, migration crisis, an overall suspicion in society about what (social) media and politics tell them and more importantly what they do not tell. Will there come a summer?  And if so, what will it be like? As spring always is a new beginning, something might be overcome or left behind and something has the chance to flourish, at least the hope remains.

I found it a bit harder this time to find my way in the novel, therefore, “Autumn” remains my favourite so far and I am quite impatient to see, what “Summer” will bring.

Santiago Amigorena – Kein Ort ist fern genug

santiago amigorena kein ort ist fern genug
Santiago Amigorena – Kein Ort ist fern genug

1928 verlässt Vicente Rosenberg seine Heimat Warschau Richtung Südamerika. In Buenos Aires gründet er mit Rosita eine Familie und eröffnet ein Möbelgeschäft. Sie bekommen drei Kinder und alles entwickelt sich prächtig in der lebendigen Stadt. Doch dann werden die Briefe der Mutter zunehmend besorgniserregend. Juden hatten es schon lange nicht mehr leicht, aber nun scheint sich die Lage doch zu verschlimmern. Während die Nazis in Europa die Endlösung vorbereiten, sitzt Vicente machtlos 12.000 Kilometer entfernt. Nachrichten erreichen ihn nur spärlich und verzögert, bald schon kann und will er diese nicht mehr ertragen und zieht sich zurück in sein inneres Ghetto. Wie die Mauer, die Warschau umschließt, verschließt er sich vor der Welt und seiner Familie. Fragen nach der Identität – was ist er: Pole, Argentinier, Jude? – und Schuld – hätte er mehr tun müssen, um seine Mutter zur Auswanderung zu bewegen, bevor es zu spät war? – plagen ihn bis er nur noch einen einzigen Ausweg für sich sieht.

Santiago Amigorena schildert die Geschichte seines Großvaters, seiner Familie, die Vertreibung auf beide Seiten des Atlantiks erlebt hat. Viele Sprachen fließen in seinen Adern, Vicente wächst mit dem Jiddischen auf, lernt dann Polnisch für die Schule, ist begeistert von der deutschen Sprache und Kultur und eigentlich sich dann das argentinische Spanisch an, sein Enkel muss später im französischen Exil erneut eine andere Sprache erlernen. Doch alle Sprachen der Welt können nicht das Entsetzen zum Ausdruck bringen, dass mit der Shoa verbunden ist und das am Beispiel Vicentes greifbar wird.

Es sind nur wenige Jahre, die Amigorena schildert, von Ende 1940 bis zum Waffenstillstand 1945, diese jedoch sind entscheidend für Vicente Rosenberg und machen aus dem lebendigen und energischen jungen Vater einen gebrochenen Mann. Der kurze Roman ist dicht und voller essentieller Fragen, die nachdenklich stimmen.

„Wie alle Juden hatte Vicente geglaubt, vieles zu sein, bis die Nazis ihm zeigten, dass ihn tatsächlich nur eines charakterisierte: sein Jüdischsein.“

Weder war er besonders religiös, noch war das Jiddische seine Alltagssprache, in verschiedenen Ländern und Sprachen zu Hause wurde plötzlich etwas zum Distinktionsmerkmal, das Hitler und seine Gefolgsleute brauchten, um sich selbst zu rechtfertigen. Die Definition des Ichs obliegt jetzt nicht mehr dem Individuum, sondern ihm wird zugeschrieben, was er/sie ist und trotz der Entfernung merkt auch Vicente, dass er sich zunehmend als Jude identifiziert und Mitglied der Leidensgemeinschaft wird, ohne jedoch unmittelbar selbst Leid zu erfahren.

Genau dieses treibt ihn in den emotionalen Ausnahmezustand. Er fühlt eine Schuld, fühlt sich als Verräter, denn er ist weit entfernt von der Gräuel, muss nicht erleben, was seine Familie und Freunde durchmachen müssen. Dabei verfügt er nur über wenig Belastbares, was das Ausmaß der Schandtaten angeht. Wie alle anderen ahnt er, dass unbegreifliche Dinge geschehen, aber erst nach der Befreiung wird die Welt begreifen und einen Begriff dafür finden, was die Nazis in Europa angerichtet haben. Doch das wenige Wissen reicht schon, um Vicente zur inneren Migration zu veranlassen und das Reden einzustellen. Nicht dass er nicht wollte, er kann nicht mehr. Das, was er durchlebt, ist sinnbildlich für das, was sich in den Lagern abspielte, und was nicht in Worte zu fassen ist.

Amigorenas Roman war nach Erscheinen 2019 für alle großen französischen Literaturpreise nominiert, was einem nach der Lektüre nicht verwundert. Die Geschichte ist intensiv, jedes Wort passt hier und lässt den Ausnahmezustand des Protagonisten greifbar werden. Der Aufbau in der Parallelität zwischen den inneren und äußeren Vorgängen ist schlicht genial. „Kein Ort ist fern genug“ ist eines dieser ganz wenigen Bücher, die man liest und denkt: so geht große Literatur.

Delia Owens – Where the Crawdads Sing

delia owens where the crawdads sing
Delia Owens – Where the Crawdads Sing

Einer nach dem anderen geht. Erst die älteren Geschwister, dann die Mutter und zuletzt auch der gewalttätige Vater. Kya bleibt mit sechs Jahren allein zurück in der Hütte im Marschland von North Carolina. Anfang der 1950er Jahre ist der White Trash, der sich dort niederlässt, weitgehend vom Alltagsleben des benachbarten Örtchens ausgeschlossen, Eltern bringen ihren Kindern früh bei, sich von diesen Wilden fernzuhalten und auch der Staat unternimmt nur wenig, um die Fürsorge für Kinder wie Kya zu sichern. So wächst das Mädchen inmitten der Natur mit den Tieren auf. Formale Bildung kennt sie nicht, aber die Landschaft und Vögel bringen ihr alles bei, was sie zum Überleben wissen muss. In Tate findet sie schon in jungen Jahren einen Verbündeten, er ist der einzige, zu dem sie Vertrauen fasst und der wie sie fasziniert ist, von der Vielfalt, die das Land zu bieten hat. Sie lebt weitgehend isoliert, doch das menschliche Bedürfnis nach Zuwendung ist manchmal stärker und kommt auch ohne Enttäuschungen nicht aus.

Delia Owens Debutroman trägt unverkennbare Spuren ihrer früheren Arbeiten, hat sie bereits mehrere Bücher über die afrikanische Savanne geschrieben. Die Natur ist der Dreh- und Angelpunkt des Romans, durch die Augen des jungen Mädchens, das im Einklang mit dieser versucht zu überleben, wird die Geschichte erzählt. Die Menschen sind dabei nur eine weitere, wilde Spezies, die genau wie Vögel und Flusstiere auch, ihre guten und die verabscheuenswürdigen Seiten zeigen.

Es war für mich nur schwer vorstellbar, dass mich eine Geschichte um ein einsames Mädchen im Marschland der 1950er Jahre interessieren könnte. Der Autorin gelingt es jedoch, die Naturbeschreibungen spannend und interessant zu gestalten, so dass man ihnen gerne folgt. Myas Überleben hingegen ist von einer unsäglich traurigen Einsamkeit geprägt, die eine kindliche Naivität nie ablegt, aber gerade durch das Unrecht, das man ihr tut, berührt und nicht wirklich kitschig wird. Der Roman spielt mit starken Emotionen auf der individuellen wie auch gesellschaftlichen Ebene, denn neben Kyas Geschichte wird auch klar, wie stark eine kleine Gemeinschaft sein kann und wie schwer das Leben für Randgruppen – Außenseiter im Marschland, Schwarze – durch diese wird und wie Vorurteile das Denken bestimmen. 

Ob dies alles authentisch und glaubwürdig ist, ist nachrangig, denn der Roman überzeugt durch eine poetische Sprache, die einem als Leser nicht kaltlässt.