This is a book with a picture of a corset on the front. And on the back as well, for that matter. The art department was obviously going for a clear statement. Yes indeed, vicar – there’s sex in it!
In fact though, Katja Oskamp has written a modern-day Cinderella for bored middle-class mothers. And I read it a rate of knots, because I only very narrowly escape the target group. Oh OK, I’m slap-bang in the middle of the target group, I admit it.
So here’s the deal: the narrator, who we can only surmise is called Katja, is a bored middle-class mother. Her partner Micha is a theatre critic and they have a pre-school daughter, who is of course perfect in every way. And life would be wonderful, a veritable ball of middle-class pleasures – a pasta machine, children’s parties, holidays by the sea – if only it weren’t so utterly dull and passionless. Oh, can you relate to this yet, fellow middle-class mothers?
So the narrator stumbles into a bar at the edge of East Berlin on a rainy night, the Hellersdorfer Perle of the title. And it’s an absolute freakshow, run by an ex-prostitute and peopled by a silent old bid, three men with no legs – and The Man. Like in all the best fairytales, The Man – we never learn his name either – sets a series of challenges. He tells her to wear a skirt next time and disappears. Next time she wears a skirt and he tells her to wear a corset, after that she wears a corset and he tells her to walk all the way home, and the time after that – well, that’s where the corset comes in. And the handcuffs. And the fluffy blue dressing gown.
There’s an interval, when she returns to the family and pretends to herself that she’s happy, until one day she goes to see a play with her partner – only to face an actress dressed up in a corset on stage, acting out her own night of kinky passion. Oh my. The Man, it transpires, is a playwright, and not a truck-driver with working-man’s hands from the wrong side of town after all.
How does it play out? They get back together again and she leads a double life, devoted mother and proofreader by day and S&M lover by night, or at least some nights. She introduces him to her daughter, and eventually there’s a cheesy half-page happy ending where she returns to her roots in a high-rise tower block in East Berlin. So now I’ve told you the plot, such as it is. But there’s so much more to Hellersdorfer Perle than that.
For a start, it’s wickedly funny, in a way that creeps up on you from behind. That corset is a huge source of comedy, as it’s a gargantuan task to put it on, and taking it off is even worse. The scene in which the narrator’s best friend catches her in the middle of the night, enlisting her partner to take it off – with a wrench in his hand – is straight out of Little Britain. I mean that in a good way.
And the comedy’s the cruel kind too that makes you squirm. The best friend, Tina, is a soap opera actress who has to be the centre of attention and talks in platitudes – often straight out of her scripts. While her partner Peter and their son spend their week nights watching mummy on TV with maxi-packs of potato crisps and tinned sardines. There’s a beautifully done parallel scene to the whole corset-removal episode, when Peter turns up to get the narrator’s help in donning a Santa Claus costume, tubby tummy and all.
And then there’s the clever casting and locations. Because it’s Ingeborg, the rake-thin prostitute-turned-landlady, who’s the fairy godmother, first helping the narrator into her uncomfortable outfit and then going shopping with her for more titillating gladrags. And Cinderella goes to the ball at Ingeborg’s down-at-heel dive, dancing to Je t’aime on the jukebox. And of course there’s Hellersdorf itself, a land of high-rise concrete that suddenly gives way to a rural idyll complete with squirrels and ponies.
And what a Prince Charming! An older man with thick eyebrows and hearing aids, a man who knows what he wants and has a past to talk about. After Cinderella runs off at the stroke of midnight he duly tracks her down, sending roses and staring across an empty playground. Which is utterly creepy. But like the setting, the rough prince proves to be not quite what the narrator – or the reader – expected. What he isn’t, though, is average.
Oskamp’s not the first writer to take a heroine out of the frustration of middle-class motherhood and plunge her into sexual adventures. I remember reading Judy Blume’s Wifey at a far too impressionable age, and am appalled in retrospect at her conciliatory ending. And there’s Lady Chatterley too, to stretch the point slightly. But Hellersdorfer Perle is so bitingly cynical and at the same time so laugh-out-loud funny that it does stand out. Oskamp plays skillfully with our expectations of the bonkbuster, refusing to conform to stereotype. Yes, her ending is annoyingly conciliatory too, but in a different way to Judy Blume’s 1970s classic – nowadays Wifey can actually leave her partner without the sky falling in.
One thing I find particularly comical is the critics’ reactions. The men don’t like it and the women do, to oversimplify. Which might have something to do with the fact that the lily-livered middle-class father constantly clutching a bottle of beer in front of the TV is of course – a critic. Or maybe you have to have been there to get it. You know, the guilt, the “Why aren’t I happy?” the lying to yourself, and the triumph and liberation when you stomp all over the middle-class dream. I totally get it. Now if Oskamp’s next novel looks at that uncomfortable bump when you land on cold, hard ground – and makes me laugh too – she’ll be in my good books forever.