Tim Krohn’s novel ans Meer (To the Sea) is part of the first crop of titles from Galiani Berlin, the new publishing house run by Esther Kormann and Wolfgang Hörner, previously of Eichborn Berlin fame. It’s a bit like the Brawn GP of German publishing, with Kiepenheuer & Witsch the Mercedes engine powering foreign rights, accounts and so on.
Which would presumably make Tim Krohn Galiani’s Jensen Button – only he’s billed as a Swiss Ian McEwan. Of course knowing that, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Atonement, and there really are a number of them. But don’t let that put you off; it’s a German book, so class plays only a very minor role. Guilt, on the other hand, is here aplenty. And when it comes to sheer quality, Krohn certainly matches up.
ans Meer is set in Zurich and on the northern coast of Germany, and tells the story of two families who grow together, apart and then together again. The Bergströms and the Paulsens share a house by the sea, where they spend their weekends together. The families’ two daughters are the best of friends, the mothers get on well, the men find a level too. Then the ostensible harmony is shattered – the hinge between the past and the present is Margot Bergström’s drowning.
Margot’s husband drinks himself to death, while her daughter Josepha runs away to Switzerland and gets herself pregnant. Meanwhile the Paulsens live a sedate life without them, with their daughter Anna becoming a psychology lecturer. In the opening chapter, she finds out her boyfriend is infertile and knew all along, throwing her off-kilter on the planned-out path to parental joy.
Anna is the book’s Elinor Dashwood, the sensible foil to Josepha’s Marianne – and here I’ll stop with the comparisons, OK? Josepha is living in Zurich with her son Jens, a single mother with an unorthodox attitude to gender roles in parenting. The action really starts when she decides to claim the house by the sea, which has been gathering dust for the past ten years or so. As events unfold, Anna gets a chance to atone for what she feels she did wrong as a teenager – and finds out that life wasn’t quite as simple back then as she thought, and certainly isn’t now either.
Told by an omniscient narrator but from changing perspectives, the story moves fluidly to and fro between past and present. The sections interlock with perfect continuity, and you know how I love that. The characters are beautifully crafted, even down to bit-parts like a policeman who is constantly losing his sunglasses. I was particularly impressed by Jens, a thoroughly three-dimensional ten-year-old besotted with his chaotic mother. Despite its earnest subject-matter, there are light moments of everyday humour throughout the novel.
The language is calm, precise and doesn’t distract from the intricate plot and the psychological insight as the book goes on. It’s a book, perhaps, about parenting, about growing up, about grief. It scrapes ingeniously past a groan-worthy happy ending of the worst kind. And it made me cry. Do check out Tim Krohn's website – the mixture of serious literature and playful devices reflects something of the novel itself.