This is going to be the world’s most biased review ever. Really, I shouldn’t write it at all. Most of it’s going to be devoted to the full disclosure. But the book’s so good I can’t not write about it.
So, what you need to know is that Tamara Bach’s one of my best friends. We talk a lot, we go out drinking and dancing and discuss hosiery and heterosexuality, poetry and prose. She’s one of the people I call when I’m down and when I’m up, and there aren’t all that many of that kind. Tamara Bach also happens to write books for young adults. Her fantastic debut novel Marsmädchen won two big fat prizes, the next one was nominated and the one after that won another one. We once went to a party where the DJ was called Marsmädchen, but sadly for Tamara’s ego she hadn’t named herself after the book – although she had read it. We danced a lot to make up for it, to Whitney Houston, and then Whitney Houston died the same night but we couldn’t quite summon up the gravitas to react appropriately.
On Thursday Tamara had a launch party for Was vom Sommer übrig ist (What's Left of the Summer). Tamara and I had coordinated our outfits to make the most of the occasion, with her stunning in red and me overdressed with little birdies. She read beautifully and chatted to Jakob Hein, who was witty and silly and impressed. Then we all cheered at the end and stood around drinking for hours. And to cure my hangover on Friday I read the book.
It’s the summer holidays, and it’s hot because that’s what the holidays are there for. Louise is seventeen and she’s planned everything out: dog-walking, paper round, job at the baker’s shop, driving lessons. Jana’s just turned thirteen but her parents haven’t noticed because her brother’s in a coma. Jana turns up to add a little chaos to Louise’s orderly life, and Tamara sends them on a small – and gorgeous – adventure just before everything collapses. Here’s the extract printed instead of a blurb on the back:
So what are you doing in the holidays? Heading south? With your parents, with friends? Have you got a job? Are you doing work experience? Do you want to spend loads of time by the lake, at the swimming pool, with your best friend? Are you going to waste your days, have you laid plans, made plans, organised it all? Do something different. Steal your gran’s car, which isn’t even stealing because she won’t notice, because she’s in Tuscany and because stealing doesn’t count in the family, doesn’t exist. Skip your job and your other job and skip the visits to your brother in hospital. Forget the last year of school and forget that your parents don’t talk to each other any more. And if you want to, call yourself something different, give yourself a different name, don’t call yourself Louise, don’t call yourself Lou, Loulou, Louisa, you can be a squaw, the big chief’s daughter. In summer you can be anything you want, you can try out languages and invent your own. The summer has a thousand and one doors. And they’re all ajar, because it’s hot.
Can you tell from my inadequate translation that Tamara doesn’t write functional prose? Often she uses jagged, interrupted language, realistic dialogue and thoughts that wander or cut off in the middle. Or flights of fancy like the one above. Parts of the novel are laugh-out-loud funny, parts made me cry, but all of it’s concise and quirky and makes you fall in love with the characters. And what she’s captured is that endless, dragging summer holiday feeling, heat and boredom and relief and an absence of adults.
I was reminded at times of the adventurous sisters in another beautiful book, Dorothee Elmiger’s Invitation to the Bold of Heart, two girls I know well because I translated the novel. Jakob Hein was reminded of Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Tschick, in which two boys have a more spectacular adventure. I think the point he made was that Tamara’s books are marketed squarely at teenagers, while these other two examples aren’t – and why is that? Nobody was quite sure.
There’ve been a lot of changes in the YA fiction world since she and I – and probably you, dear reader – were raiding the teenage section at our respective local libraries, she told us. No more getting down with the kids, no more books about bulimia and only bulimia or drug abuse and only drug abuse. What Tamara does is graze issues – in this case bullying and what suicide does to those left behind, in Marsmädchen a teenage coming-out – without writing tiresome issue novels. She writes stories that become literature and she doesn’t write for parents and teachers, I suspect; she writes for teenagers. And if there’s a drop of teenager left in you, you’ll relate to her books.