Angie Cruz – Dominicana

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Angie Cruz – Dominicana

Ana has always been an extraordinarily pretty child, so when she becomes a teenager, her parents see this as a chance to escape their poor situation. At the age of fifteen, she is married to one of the Ruiz brothers, a family making a fortune in the US which allows them to control more and more land in the Dominican Republic. Ana has to follow her new husband to New York where she lives in a poor, rundown apartment and the promises of being able to go to school are soon forgotten. She has to serve Juan and his brothers and if she doesn’t obey or dares to speak up, he shows her with brutal force who has the say in their home. She becomes more and more desperate and finally develops a plan to flee, but she underestimates her new family.

Angie Cruz’s novel is set in the 1960s, but her protagonist’s fate could be as real in 2020. Young and naive girls fall prey to seducing men or are forced by their parents to leave their home country for a supposedly better life abroad where they, with the status as an illegal immigrant, hardly have a chance to escape their domestic situation which is often marked by poverty, oppression and being exposed to violence of all kinds by their domineering husbands. Dependence due to lack of language knowledge often combined with isolation makes them sooner or later give up all opposition and succumbing to the life they are forced to live.

It is easy to sympathise with Ana; at the beginning, she is a lively girl with dreams and vivid emotions even though she has also experienced her parents’ strict and at times brutal education. She is quite clever, nevertheless, the new life in New York overburdens her and she needs some time to accommodate and develop coping strategies. However, then, she becomes the independent thinker I had hoped for, but never egoistically does she only think about herself, she also reflects what any step could mean for her family at home whose situation with the political turmoil of 1965 worsens dramatically.

A wonderful novel about emancipation and a strong-willed young woman which allows a glance behind normally closed doors.

Garth Greenwell – Cleanness

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Garth Greenwell – Cleanness

An American teacher comes to Sofia, Bulgaria, to teach his mother tongue to students who hope to find a better life abroad with a good knowledge of the world language. While the work is satisfying, his love life has become a lot more complicated since homosexuality is not something that is openly shown in the eastern European country. In a Portuguese exchange student, he finds his love, but things are complicated with the countries’ economies struggling and offering not much to foreigners.

The narrator finds himself in a surrounding which differs a lot from his life before, he roams the streets of Sofia discovering and re-discovering old and mysterious places, being lost physically and emotionally. The political and economic situation aren’t easy either which makes it hard for him to fully enjoy his time in this country of wild nature and rich history.

Greenwell definitely has an eye for the details, e.g. the wind playing outside or hitting the windows and smoothly running over his characters’ backs and brilliantly captures his protagonist’s emotional state. Even though the chapters are often like independent episodes, together they form a complete picture. Just like them, all the narrator experiences are pieces of a mosaic that are unique when look at closely, but you have to take a step back to get the full picture.

Some very interesting observations put in a beautiful language, yet, the mass of explicit scenes annoyed me a bit, a lot of it could have been left to the readers’ imagination.

Ali Smith – Herbst

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Ali Smith – Herbst

Der Sommer verabschiedet sich, geht zu Ende, wie auch das Leben von Daniel Gluck langsam aus ihm verschwindet. Mit 101 Jahren hat er viel erlebt und verbringt nun die Tage schlafend im Pflegeheim. Elisabeth besucht ihn dort regelmäßig, um ihm vorzulesen. Sie ist nicht seine Enkelin wie die Pflegerinnen denken, nicht einmal mit ihm verwandt, als Kind wohnten sie und ihre Mutter neben dem damals schon alten Mann und er hat auf ihren Spaziergängen nicht nur ihre Phantasie beflügelt, sondern auch ihre Liebe zu Kunst und Literatur geweckt. Vielleicht ist es gut, dass er nicht mehr sieht, wie sich die Welt verändert, nicht nur der Sommer muss weichen, sondern auch das England, das sie kannten. Das Land, das ihn einst aufgenommen hat und das nun vom Brexit gezeichnet und gespalten ist.

Ali Smiths Roman ist der erste Band eines nach den Jahreszeiten benannten Zyklus, der die Stimmung eines zerrissenen Landes mit einer ausdrucksstarken Poetik einfängt. Sie hat sich damit nicht nur endgültig in die Riege der ganz großen zeitgenössischen britischen Autorinnen katapultiert, sondern wurde hierfür auch auf der Shortlist für den Man Booker Prize 2017 honoriert.

Aus Charles Dickens‘ „Tale of Two Cities“ liest Elisabeth dem schlafenden Daniel vor. Passender als in Analogie zu der berühmten Anfangspassage des mehr als 150 Jahre alten Romans kann man die Stimmung in Großbritannien seit dem Referendum kaum zusammenfassen:

 „Im ganzen Land fanden die Leute, es sei das Falsche. Im ganzen Land fanden die Leute, es sei das Richtige. Im ganzen Land fanden die Leute, sie hätten eigentlich verloren. Im ganzen Land fanden die Leute, sie hätten eigentlich gewonnen. Im ganzen Land fanden die Leute, sie hätten das Richtige und andere hätten das Falsche getan.“

Elisabeth stellt sich jedoch nicht nur die Frage, in welcher Zeit sie lebt, sondern was Zeit überhaupt ist, ist eines der zentralen Rätsel des Romans. Ebenso wie jenes nach der Wahrheit, die die Protagonistin schon als Grundschulmädchen beschäftigt:

Es soll aber die Wahrheit sein, sagte Elisabeth. Es ist für die Nachrichten in Zeitgeschichte. Das merkt doch niemand, sagte ihre Mutter. Erfinde es selber. Die richtigen Nachrichten sind sowieso immer erfunden. Die richtigen Nachrichten sind nicht erfunden, sagte Elisabeth. Es sind Nachrichten. Über das Thema sprechen wir noch mal, wenn du ein bisschen älter bist, sagte ihre Mutter.“

Nachdem sie jahrelang den Kontakt zu Daniel Gluck verloren hatte, leben nun mit den Besuchen im Krankenhaus auch die Erinnerungen an ihre gemeinsamen Nachmittage wieder auf. Noch einmal wird sie das neugierige und wissbegierige Kind, das durch die Augen des weisen Mannes blicken und die Welt erkunden darf.

„Irgendetwas solltest du immer lesen, sagte er. Auch wenn du kein Buch in der Hand hast. Wie sollen wir die Welt sonst ergründen?“

Ist noch zu verstehen, was in England gerade geschieht? Können die Nachrichten die Stimmung einfangen und transportieren? Man sollte nicht so weit gehen wie Elisabeths Mutter, die sie als erfunden abstempelt, aber sie sind selektiv, arrangiert und mit einer gewissen Intention aufbereitet. Bleibt also nur noch die Literatur, um die Wahrheit der Welt zu ergründen? Zumindest eine Wahrheit, die der Figuren, die uns Ali Smith präsentiert. Sie könnte auch ganz anders sein, das wäre dann aber eine andere Geschichte.

Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

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Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

Twelve different women, twelve different fates. Bernardine Evaristo was awarded the Man Booker Prize 2019 for her novel which does not have a real plot with an all-embracing story but for each of the main characters offers a short insight in their life often at crucial turning point. Their stories overlap, are often cleverly intertwined. What they share is the fact that they address fundamental topics: first of all, I’d say “Girl, Woman, Other“ is a feminist novel since the cause of the woman in modern England, mostly the black woman, is the central topic. Apart from this, relationships, sexuality and gender identity are tackled as well as politics and what it means to be successful.

“His bredren and sistren could damned well speak up for themselves. Why should he carry the burden of representation when it will only hold him back? White people are only required to represent themselves, not an entire race.”

What does it mean to be different? To be black or brown in a predominantly white community. To be homosexual or gender fluid in a primarily heterosexual society. To be a working woman when women are supposed to stay at home to take care of the children and the household. Even when the point of disdain has been overcome, the problems and strange reactions have not necessarily and quite often, the singular example who enters a new community has to represent a whole group and loses his or her individuality.

What the characters unites is to differ from the mainstream which does not go unnoticed and uncommented. Most of them go through a tough time which leaves them stronger and makes it easy to empathise with them. The characters are complex, their lives are complicated and at the end of their chapter, they are not the same person they were at the beginning. Which also offers the reader the chance to leave their stand point and to change perspective on certain topics.

The novel is full of life and with the award, the spotlight has been turned on to black female and queer literature which have been awfully underrepresented in literary discussion. This is surely one of the strongest novels of 2019 since it contributes to the ongoing public discourse.

Eileen Pollack – The Professor of Immortality

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Eileen Pollack – The Professor of Immortality

Since her husband Sam has died, Ann Arbor professor Maxine Sayers feels lonely. She fully dedicates her life to her Institute of Future Studies where she researches the effects of technology on the people knowing that, eventually, her small world might be closed down as they do not produce anything commercially useful. When her son Zach quits his Silicon Valley job without a warning and vanishes without any further notice and her mother’s health deteriorates, she feels quite depressed. But things become even worse when a series of bomb attacks by the so-called “Technobomber” remind her of incidents of the past: might her son be involved in these terrorist doings? When his former MIT professor is seriously hurt, she knows that she has to find him and she has the bad feeling that she knows who is behind it all.

When reading Eileen Pollack’s novel, I was immediately reminded of the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski who bears a lot of resemblance to one of the main characters in the novel. The author might be inspired by these events, yet, they are not the main and only focus in the book. Pollack writes about family bonds, about the loss of a beloved person, technology, feminism and chauvinism in the academic world, and, first and foremost, about the question of how we want to live and what is important for us. Once I started, I was totally immersed and read the book in just one sitting which is also due to the fact that towards the end, it becomes a suspenseful crime novel.

Even though most of the issues addressed in the novel are interesting and provide some food for thought, Maxine’s teaching was the one that stimulated my pondering most. Especially the scenes of her classroom where she discusses the impact of technology and questions about how far we are willing to following technological advances are superb. Unfortunately, this topic is a bit abandoned for the Technobomber plot line which also has some fascinating psychological aspects to offer but was a bit weaker in my opinion.

A rather unusual combination of campus and crime novel that provides not only much to think about but also a lot of suspense.

Jami Attenberg – All This Could Be Yours

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Jami Attenberg – All This Could Be Yours

A heart attack will surely be the end of Victor, it is just a question of days and until he breathes for the last time. His wife Barbra visits him in hospital, accompanies him during these last days remembering the good, but most all the bad times they had together. Their daughter Alex also rushes to New Orleans to say good-bye, even though she is reluctant to do so. Their son Gary, however, refuses to see his father. He hides in Los Angeles and is unwilling to even talk to his family. Victor was a man with two faces, one for the family and one for the world outside. He was successful, at least it seemed so, but his success was founded on his character and this undoubtedly had some very dark spots.

“(…) it was then she realized that the stories he told were bad, that he did bad things. Even though he thought he was a hero. Simultaneously bored and intrigued, she asked him if what he did was illegal. ‘No one is innocent in this life. (…)’ “

Victor is a man of action, he knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. Contradiction and opposition are not things he tolerates, neither at work nor at home. If somebody dares to disobey, he either bullies them – like his secretaries – or smacks and beats them, like his wife and children. Now, immobile and comatose, he is not in control anymore and he cannot have any influence on his family members’ thoughts. That’s when all that has been hidden for so many years, finally surfaces.

Jami Attenberg’s latest novel gives an insight in a highly dysfunctional family. The head of it ultimately hors de combat, the toxic structures and behaviour come to the light. You wonder how and why a wife could ever accept and endure such a life, yet, the deeper you dive into Barbra’s thoughts, the more comprehensible her actions and behaviour become. She is weak and has never been ready to fight. Victor provided her with a certain standard of living and her contribution was never to dig deep, not to look too closely, but to ignore what she learnt over all those years at his side.

“Ah yes, the children. She hadn’t wanted them; Victor had. But her body was needed for  production.”

The relationship between the parents and the children has always been cold. The mother never prevented the abuse just as she accepted how Victor treated herself. The daughter Alex seems to struggle most with it. She is caught between an understanding of what to do before you lose someone forever – forgive, forget, make peace – and her actual feeling which highly contradict this. Even when Victor is in agony, he makes life hard for his next of kin.

“All This Could Be Yours” is very cleverly constructed novel. Even in his absence, this very bad man domineers his family’s thoughts and shows that he is capable of ruining everybody’s life. Wonderfully written and brilliantly made from a psychological point of view, there is not much you could wish for more in a novel.

Jacqueline Woodson – Red at the Bone

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Jacqueline Woodson – Red at the Bone

When Iris gets pregnant at the age of fifteen, she only takes in the fact that she and her boyfriend Aubrey are going to have a baby. What this really means for her life, she cannot assess at that moment. Sixteen years later, her daughter Melody is having her coming-of-age-party wearing the dress that was once meant for her mother. Not just Iris’s life takes another road with the unexpected kid, also her parents’ plans and of course those of Aubrey and his family change due to the new situation and all of them also have to face the world outside their family bubbly where not everybody is totally understanding. A novel about family bonds and about what influence a single human being can have on how you live your life.

Jacqueline Woodson has chosen a discontinuous mode of narration. Not only does she spring back and forward chronologically, but she also gives different characters a voice and also has a 3rd person narrator tell parts of the plot. This makes the whole story quite lively and often unexpected because at the beginning of each chapter you do not know where you are starting from and who is addressing you.

There are some central topics focussed on, first of all, of course, the teenager falling pregnant. The family manages the situation perfectly, no major fight or disruption arises from Iris’s decision to keep the baby, but it is hard to read about the reactions of her friends and school, even though I would classify it as highly authentic. The only person really struggling with the new-born, yet, is Iris who can never really bond with her daughter. She puts some effort in their relationship, but it is simply never enough and she most certainly suffers from the chances that she in her own perception never had in her life due to becoming a mother that early – admittedly, I had the impression that life could be much worse under these circumstances and Iris had a lot of opportunities to fulfil her dreams.

Another aspect are the class-related and skin-colour attributed options in life. These do not determine the characters’ fate, yet provide some food for thought as do family relations in general in the novel.

The novel offers a lot of blind spots, leaves gaps that you have to fill on your own due to the structure of the narration. I actually liked it because it makes you think on after reading and sticking with the book much longer. I also enjoyed Jacqueline Woodson’s style e of writing which is well adapted to the different characters and authentic.

Mahir Guven – Older Brother

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Mahir Guven – Older Brother

They are neither French, nor the typical Arabs you find in Paris who mainly come from the former colonies in the Maghreb countries. So no wonder the two brothers who grow up without their mother do not belong anywhere. Their father left Syria in the hope of a better life for his kids, but the older of his sons got in trouble early, only the younger one who works as a nurse in a hospital seems to have a promising future. Yet, the feeling of being unable to fulfil his dreams – becoming a real doctor, being treated like the French – throws him off the track. With a Muslim humanitarian organisation, he hopes to do something useful with his life at least and leaves the country for Syria and the war. Three years after abominable conditions leave their mark and when he returns, he is not only the same young man he was before anymore but he also has a mission to accomplish.

“We used to just be Syrians. Well, he was Syrian, and we were Maghrebins, Syrians, sometimes French, occasionally Breton; it depended who we were hanging out with. In real life, until the war in Syria, we were all more just banlieusards than anything else. But since the war, everyone’s been calling themselves Muslim.”

Mahir Guven portrays two possible ways of dealing with an undoubtedly highly demanding situation. No matter how much effort Europeans put into welcoming refugees and migrants of all kinds, societies are not easy to actually enter. The boys have a French mother and a Syrian father, thus by nature, do not completely belong anywhere. This makes them not only fragile and prone to all kinds of delinquencies, but also perceptible to questionable ideologies which on the surface seem to provide answers neither the family nor the society can offer.

The debut novel gives the young men not only a voice, but also the reader a chance to look into their heads and get an understanding of their feelings and lacking sense of belonging. It also shows that it is not inevitably the family, the friends or the milieu someone lives in which determine about their life. There are always options, decisions are made and even if you opt for one road, this does not obligatorily have to be a one-way street. Second, the terrorists who threaten our peaceful life are not always stupid idiots, but the intelligent ones who simply were refused their share of happiness and a chance in life.

I was immediately immersed in the novel which is written in a lively and authentic tone. But first and foremost, I find it highly relevant to read about these kinds of perceptions and feelings, by far too long other voices have domineered the discourse and if we want to live up to our ideals, we need to listen to them, too.

Karina Sainz Borgo – It Would Be Night in Caracas

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Karina Sainz Borgo – It Would Be Night in Caracas

Adelaida Falcón has just buried her beloved mother and finds herself completely on her own, when not just her own life but the lives of all inhabitants of her hometown of Caracas crumble. Outside, protesters fight, looters take everything they can and leaving the apartment surely means an immediate death. When her small world is invaded, too, she tries to fight, but in vain, she not only has nobody to turn to anymore but also has to consider herself homeless. The fight for her life makes her do things she, the literary translator, would never have dreamt of. But these are not times to act morally, these are times of trying to survive only.

Karina Sainz Borgo’s debut is a work of fiction, but to anybody who followed the news of South America in the last couple of months, the question of how much truth and reality might be found in the novel inevitable comes to mind. In an interview, the author underlines the fictitious nature of the plot, yet, she also stresses that all the rioting, murdering, fraud and random acts of violence are true. They do exist and they certainly exist in fragile countries.

“Generous in beauty and in violence, two of the qualities that it had in greatest abundance.”

Not all is bad in Venezuela, Adelaida remembers the time of carelessness outside Caracas where she spent her childhood summers. But she also knows city life where all was welcoming for children, but simply a waste since going outside and enjoying the playgrounds was too dangerous. She finds herself oscillating between extremes, her country does not seem to know any state of moderation.

“Human beings transformed into meat, which someone else would turn into news items displayed on the newsstands the next day.”

At times, it is hard to endure what Sainz Borgo narrates. In particular, the report on situation in Venezuelan prisons under the watch of the paramilitary troops made me hold my breath. One does not want to read about it, does not want to know about it, however, you are totally aware that this is how it is.

“Only a small difference in sound separates ‘leave’ from ‘live’.”

How can one live under such circumstances? One cannot. Dot. So, if the chance of escape presents itself, seize it. And that’s just what Adelaida does, though, not without a guilty conscience.

A novel full of brutality and misery, the portrait of a country on the ground. Corruption and violence dominate; humanity is hard to find. It is not an objective report, it remains a work of fiction and the first person narrator underlines the subjective point of view, which in this case, however, only renders the atmosphere gloomier and more depressing. A novel that goes under your skin and forces you to face what people have to endure day in, day out.

Jackie Thomae – Brüder

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Jackie Thomae – Brüder

Mick und Gabriel sind Brüder, doch das wissen sie nicht, denn sie haben außer den Genen des Vaters und der dadurch dunklen Hautfarbe wenig gemeinsam. Mick wächst im Ost-Berlin der DDR auf und auch nach der Wende hat das Leben wenig zu bieten. Mit Delia könnte alles in sichere und ruhige Bahnen laufen, aber er kann ihr das nicht geben, was sie will: ein Baby. Gabriel hingegen wächst in Sachsen bei den Großeltern auf, nachdem seine Mutter früh bei einem Unfall starb. Zielstrebig wird er zu einem der besten Architekten weltweit und baut sich in London genau das Leben auf, das er als Kind nicht hatte und von dem er nur träumen konnte. Ihre Wege sollten sich nie kreuzen, doch es gibt ja den gemeinsamen Vater.

Jackie Thomae erzählt in ihrem zweiten Roman, der es 2019 auf die Shortlist des Deutschen Buchpreises geschafft hat, zwei Geschichten. Die Ausgangssituation ist vergleichbar, doch dann sind es Umstände, Begegnungen, Zufälle, persönliche Dispositionen, die dazu führen, dass die beiden Jungs sich ganz unterschiedlich entwickeln. Überzeugend zeigt die Autorin so, dass das Leben nie planbar ist und es immer viele Faktoren sind, die darüber entscheiden, wie die Dinge laufen.

„und er begriff erst jetzt: sein Bruder war nicht wie seine Schwestern mit diesem Mann hier aufgewachsen. Nein. Sein Bruder war wie er.“

Mick täuscht sich kolossal in seiner Einschätzung, denn die beiden Brüder könnten verschiedener kaum sein. Mick wirft sich voll ins Leben, erwartet alles und will es mit allen Sinnen auskosten. Frauen, Drogen, Partys bis in den Morgen – you name it. Gabriel hingegen ist ehrgeizig und zielstrebig und überlässt wenig dem Zufall. Seine Entscheidungen sind durchdacht und sorgfältig gewählt. So verlaufen ihre beruflichen Karrieren und Beziehungen auch diametral entgegengesetzt.

Ein Thema, das eigentlich keins ist, ist ihre Hautfarbe. Im multikulturellen London ist Gabriel einer von vielen, selbst als ihm ein Angriff vorgeworfen wird, wird seine Hautfarbe nicht thematisiert. Er lässt sich nicht in die britische Gesellschaft mit ihrem strengen Klassensystem eingruppieren, sondern wird nach seinem Erfolg und Charakter beurteilt. Sie ist jedoch für ihn wesentliches Kriterium, einen Job in den USA auszuschlagen, denn dort sieht er trotz Obamas Erfolg immer noch eine Reduktion auf sein Äußeres. Auch in Berlin ist Mick nicht ernsthaft Rassismus ausgesetzt, Stigmatisierungen verlaufen eher über soziale Faktoren. Einzig in seiner Beziehung mit Delia kommen ihm gelegentlich Zweifel, ob er nicht gerade wegen seinem Aussehen als Partner in Frage kam, sein Einkommen und Status können es kaum gewesen sein.

Jackie Thomae erzählt lebendig mit eingängigem Humor, der einem immer wieder Schmunzeln lässt. Sie verfällt nicht naheliegenden Klischeedarstellungen, weder wie erwähnt die Hautfarbe noch die Wende werden als Schicksalsschlag ausgeschlachtet, dem die Figuren nicht entkommen können. Es ist ein Blick in den Alltag zweier interessanter Individuen, der auch erzählperspektivisch überzeugend gestaltet wurde.