I am a total sucker for novels about struggling single mothers. And for novels that look a little further afield for their subject matter than the end of the writer's nose. And for playful novels that don't make things too easy for their readers. Annika Reich's latest, Die Nächte auf ihrer Seite, ticks all those boxes. I like it a lot.
So there are two protagonists, Ada and Sira. Ada is the struggling single mother and Sira is the younger German-Egyptian woman troubled, or maybe traumatized, by her visit to relatives during the Arab Spring. She's Ada's ex-sister-in-law and they're making a play together, which they do by visiting the families of the small crew and filming them (Ada is a camerawoman), and then the director Olaf will take all the material and put it on stage. Because that's the kind of crazy shit German theatres do! So in among the other action, we get slightly cringeworthy portraits of four different families in Germany. Cringeworthy for the children, that is, because their parents invariably show them up.
But what's the other action in the first place? There's sort of a lot of it and on the other hand not much. Ada is struggling to deal with her ex's love life and her own reliance on sex as a cure-all, and at the same time struggling with parenting her rather sensible daughter, Fanny. There are a number of those truly awful "Mummy has a headache" moments that made me love Ada all the more. And she's also making a film of her own, which we see in snippets, a kind of Rear Window, if that rear window happened to look out on a succession of couples going to and from a relationship counsellor. My reaction to these snippets from strangers' lives changed from mild confusion to craving – I wanted more, more microfiction of marital failure – because of course the struggling single mother's favourite consolation is that everyone else's lives are shit too.
And then there's Sira's trip to Cairo, told in retrospective a few years on. She returns to Berlin taciturn and upset, and the assumption is that something very bad has happened to her. Reich builds tension in the course of the novel as we watch the Egyptian rebellion swell, with Sira going along to Tahrir Square with friends and riding on the wave of elation as they seem to be making a difference. I like what Annika Reich does next, I like it a lot. And I like that she gives us this character, an educated middle-class German-Egyptian with pretty much the same problems as the rest of us, plus a dash of ethnic identity crisis. It's not heavy-handed though.
Occasionally we get a page from Fanny's diary, which I could have done without, to be honest, because there are already a lot of characters in the mix and it's tricky to get children's tone right. But we do get the reassuring message that the poor kid still loves her mum, no matter what she gets up to. And to make up for it, Reich gives us an excellent climax with the play's staging (I imagined I'd hate it if I was in the audience) and a kind of Ada-style resolution with her ex.
So Die Nächte auf ihrer Seite is not a neat novel. I'm not quite sure what the title refers to – perhaps Ada's not quite ability to be the kind of mother she thinks she ought to be, or perhaps Sira's sense of not quite belonging to the Arab Spring. It's a novel about not quite succeeding, maybe, and like Ada and Sira, it tries hard to get a lot of stuff done and sometimes overstretches itself. You should read it anyway if you too are a sucker for messy books about messy lives.