Thursday, 18 September 2014

Stefanie de Velasco: Tiger Milk

A teenage narrator shares her recipe for a good time:

One best friend
One carton milk from the school canteen
One bottle cheap brandy
One carton maracuja juice
One widemouthed container of Müller chocolate milk (empty)
Two pairs stripy stockings
One strawberry-flavoured condom.
Mix with a long finger and consume in Berlin's red-light district. 

Nini and Jameela call it tiger milk and they drink it like it's going out of fashion, while picking up punters on Kurfürstenstraße and fleecing them for less than they're worth, usually. They're fourteen and practicing for when they lose their virginity. It's enough to make a mother's heart stand still, but our heroines' mothers have other worries – something that might be agoraphobia or just plain depression, and in Jameela's case expulsion to Iraq. The girls have been friends and neighbours somewhere in West Berlin since they were kids and now they ponder on whether they're grown up; narrator Nini opens the novel with her first "childhood memory", a gritty moment involving a Barbie doll, a spat-out chewing gum and an unwanted sibling. And if she has a childhood memory, she reasons, she can't be a child any more.

She still is, I would say, although Stefanie de Velasco puts her through all sorts of perilous adventures in her debut Tiger Milk. There's a murder and a magic spell and a love story and a party, and that fun hobby on Kurfürstenstraße turns out to have its down sides, one of the most chilling scenes I've read recently. In essence, though, de Velasco gives us the story of a summer spent at the outdoor pool and the local playground, on the U-Bahn and on the streets of Berlin. There's a defunct phone box that serves as a message board because all the kids carry sharpies, and graffiti is a means of emotional communication. If you liked the film Prinzessinenbad (and who didn't?), you need to read this.

It's a book that inspires adoration, maybe because of Nini's fantastic voice. We read the prizewinning opening chapter when I ran a course on contemporary German writing, and one of the participants was inspired to mix us up a round of tiger milk. It's not bad at all. And one translator friend of mine fell for the novel pretty hard too, but in the end the job of putting it into English went to Tim Mohr. Tim has ended up kind of specialized in books with teenage narrators, after Wetlands, Broken Glass Park and Why We Took the Car, so you can see why that happened. And again, he's done an astounding job. I love the almost unpunctuated rhythm he's got going, and of course the wordplay and just the generally believable tone of a bunch of fourteen-year-old kids. I don't think I could ever aspire to do it. Sometimes it sounds very American for a British publishing house but that seems to me to be absolutely appropriate. But he never irons out the fact that it's all happening in Berlin. I am a fan.

The best thing about Tiger Milk? It's just plain funny. Although these kids are going through fourteen kinds of torture, Stefanie de Velasco never makes victims out of them. It doesn't feel like sociology, the way some German books look down on the poor proletariat; it never gets patronizing. I found myself laughing through my shock all the way through, right to the bitter end. Of all the possible reasons to read it – realistic portrayal of teenage terror, Berlin from below, exhilarating language – that humour would be my killer argument. And yes, someone's writing a screenplay.

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