To move from a centenarian who is writing her memoirs about World War One in a florid style to teenage youth in Germany who mingle in the streets, plan their next alcohol infused outing can only mean one thing, I am exploring the literary lists of some translation prize.
Read number eight from the 2105 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist takes me to Germany and the debut novel from Stephanie De Velasco.
The sun streams through the window and the tiny dust particles float in the air like in outer space, weightless, without a care in the world, they’ve got nothing else to do in life other than fly around and then gather into a dirty pile. From the perspective of the universe, like Herr Wittner always says, the earth is no different than a speck of dust. Who knows, I think, maybe the particles here in this room are planets and we’re just too big and stupid to see the life living there and all the stuff happening there, bad stuff and beautiful stuff, who knows, that’s the way it is with the earth after all which is nothing more than a speck of dust, a rotten speck of dust full of blood and shit.
Our story is narrated in the first person and follows the escapades of two renegade teenagers, our narrator, Nini, and her best friend Jameelah, an Iraqi immigrant attempting to make Germany her home (this is a minor sub-plot in the novel which I believe is only used to tie up a few loose ends).
Nini and Jameelah drink a homemade concoction of alcohol and milk, disguised in a flavoured milk container, hence the title of our novel, as they discuss losing their virginity, talk about "real love", work the streets selling tricks, smoke dope and generally talk about inane topics such as their boyfriends.
Pfff, someday, says Jameelah. Now, right now they are happy but someday they’ll split up. People like that think life is like Play-Doh, that you can make anything out of it, but someday life will rip them apart and this morning in their garden will be mothing more than a memory, a memory so painful that they’ll wish they never even experienced it. Someday they’ll cry the hardest over the moments that made them happiest. Those idiots still believe in the idea of good.
Our anti-heroes (they are not heroes by any stretch of the imagination), are your usual, down on the world teenagers, they feel isolated, they know the world just doesn’t understand them, they are on the brink of adulthood and cannot understand how they can ever be like those ancient crusty people around them, their parents. Their future is full of hopelessness and things only get worse when they perform a naked love ritual only to end up witnessing a murder.
Our work scratches at an explanation of why our narrator Nini is so angst ridden, but as it is through her eyes we need to decode this ourselves:
Mama lays on the sofa basically all the time. Most of the time her eyes are closed, but when I come home she sometimes opens them and asks, where were you. When she opens her eyes she always looks horribly tired, like she’s just arrived from some faraway place and only flopped down on the sofa here in our living room by blind luck. I don’t think she’s really looking for an answer to her question. Me on the other hand, I’d love to know where she was, where she always goes behind her shuttered eyelids, all those hours she spends alone on the sofa. Mama’s sofa is like a remote island she lives on. And even though that island is in the middle of our living room, a thick haze obscures it from view. You can’t dock on Mama’s Island.
As a work which explores the emptiness and pain of being a teenager this is a genuine voice, it captures the inanity of their “dramas”, it highlights the usual “young adult” problems and exposure, whilst ignoring the bigger life issues that are going on around them (the family issues, refugees, roles in ethnic families as examples), therefore being very self-centred as a teenager would be. Yes a genuine voice.
I have a pebble in my shoe, I kind of like it when I have a pebble in my shoe. It’s like someone’s there, like someone’s accompanying me through the world. I can play with it if I get bored, roll it around with my big toe, round and round like a circus horse being paraded around the ring. I don’t know why, but when I have a pebble in my shoe I never feel like I’m alone.
However this was a voice I did not enjoy, this is not a bad work by any stretch of thinking, but in my mind it is a shallow one, just like our two main characters. There is no motivation, there is no future, there is no explanation, it is a wandering around from event to event. And the timing felt all wrong, an event which is very immediate (approaching the immigration department the next day) suddenly seems to lose focus and crop up at what feels weeks, months later. This is no “Even The Dogs” by Jon McGregor, which explored the depths of young age addiction, this is a “Disney” version, even if it does contain “controversial” subjects such as teenage prostitution.
Although not a novel I would revisit, this is a skilful work as it enters the world of a self-obsessed teenager and gives her voice, a voice I personally did not like, but who would like a teenage daughter like Nini? Probably more a book for teenagers themselves than a feature on the list of a literary award, I think it will be hard pressed to make it through to the shortlist. But again, an assured debut.