Sunday, 31 May 2015

Christiane Neudecker: Sommernovelle

Let me start this review, once again, with a disclosure: the book's author is a friend of mine. With the Anglophone literary world thinking about cronyism and the German-language literary world thinking about paid criticism versus unpaid blogs, that admission seems to fit the current mood. It's not only paid critics who have cronies. When I was looking for a writer to appear for free in an event about literary teenagers, Christiane Neudecker generously – and bravely – offered to read a passage from her as yet unfinished manuscript, in English translation. It turned out to be a great evening of conversation with Christiane and the American writer Brittani Sonnenberg, in which we shared our adoration for teenage girls' stubborn principles and wonderment at the world.

Returning the favour as an opportunity to relive that exhilarating evening, I agreed to moderate Christiane's book launch this past Thursday, and a joy it was; a celebration of friendships both in the book Sommernovelle and in real life, with an audience full of affectionate faces and Christiane's former flatmate Alexia Peniguel of a seated craft performing songs in between the readings and conversation. The climax? An adrenalin-inducing duet between the two of them.

So now you know two things: I am rather predisposed towards this book, and I've also followed its development from open-ended manuscript to printed book, have translated an extract from it, and thus know it very well indeed. Will it surprise you to learn that I'm a fan?

Sommernovelle is the story of two 15-year-old girls who go to spend their early summer holidays at an ornithological centre on a North Sea island. German North Sea islands, incidentally, are quite tame compared to the Scottish ones, more tourist paradises than wind-swept outposts, although there is plenty of weather in the book. Lotte and the narrator (we learn only her nickname, Panda) are looking forward to several weeks of explaining nature to visitors, rescuing injured owls and sunbathing, but in fact they are expected to do much more mundane tasks, cleaning, cooking and counting the local gull population. There's a lot of humour in their expectations and reactions to real life, and also in their high principles. The story is set in the late 1980s, with all the (West) German environmentalism of those times; the girls usually refuse to travel by car (pollution!) and vow to take plastic bags to the beach to collect litter. As Neudecker commented on Thursday, all most of us manage to retain of that idealism as adults is recycling our copious rubbish.

The book's language is not entirely that of a teenager, however. Sommernovelle features many passages of intricate nature descriptions, something not common in contemporary German fiction. Birds, of course, but also the sea and the beaches, marred as they are by commercialism (a crane lifts tourists up into the sky for bungee jumps; greasy tables gather around snack bars). The weather, prey and predators, nature's violence: pathetic fallacy.

For the humans at the centre are little better, it aspires. The largely absent professor who founded the place appears at last and Panda begins asking questions she probably ought not to, while Lotte embarks on a romance. Behind Panda's eagerness for independence, there is something she's running from, and Neudecker lets that narrative emerge gently. She has a similar lightness of touch with what the girls notice about their fellow volunteers and what they don't; while we readers might have a more experienced eye, verging on the cynical, Neudecker's narrator leaves some things unmentioned simply because she doesn't know about them. That, I found, was a delight that matured between manuscript and finished version.  

It is easy to consider every book about teenagers a coming-of-age story. For me, however, Sommernovelle is not about coming of age but about refusing to join the cynical world of adulthood, at least for a while. Deeply disappointed, Lotte asks: "When do we get like that?" The girls choose not to do so and as such, for me, the book is a genuine celebration of a difficult but in many aspects wonderful time in our lives: girlhood. It succeeds not by presenting a rose-tinted view full of "endless summer days" but by showing the weaknesses and the strengths of its characters, by taking an affectionate and respectful view of its protagonists but letting us laugh at those times. Do read it.

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