Most years I try to read a book from the German Book Prize Shortlist. I was drawn to Streulicht, shortlisted in 2020, as it’s a coming-of-age novel about a girl from a working-class milieu who moves away from her family background. I’m interested in stories from people who cross class barriers, in those who leave and those who stay, and my interest in Streulicht was piqued further by Miriam Zeh’s comparison with Didier Eribon and Annie Ernaux on the back cover. (I’d also add Edouard Louis, Elena Ferrante and Kerry Hudson to a list of writers on this theme).
The novel begins with the protagonist returning to the town she grew up in for the wedding of two school friends. As soon as she arrives she’s hit by the acidic smell and the feel of the air thickening like cotton wool in the mouth: the town is dominated by a vast industrial chemical plant, and the smell and light from the plant, glowing like a huge stranded saucer in the night sky, is present throughout the book. We know straightaway this is no easy return: she’s aware of her face changing, resuming that blank expression her father taught her, so as not to draw attention to herself. She finds nothing’s changed in her father’s flat, where she’s staying: the reek of cigarette smoke, the groceries piled high on the kitchen surfaces, the mucky table cloth, the thermos flask, its inside encrusted with cold coffee, the plastic bag for recycling hanging from the kitchen door handle, spilling over.
The first person narrator—whose name we never know—then tells the story of her childhood, moving between a range of episodes and anecdotes of intensely felt experience from the child’s perspective, and occasional interventions or commentary from her older self. This is not initially an unhappy childhood: with her good friends from the neighbourhood, Sophia and Pikka, she roams about the area, making up stories about ghosts in the abandoned hut, playing imaginative games around the Silberfarm. But she’s always aware that her friends’ families are better off than hers, and also—well, also that their households are run in a more organised fashion. When she visits Sophia’s house she’s in awe not just of her mother’s glamour but also of the meticulous order in her bathroom, the numerous creams, cosmetics and tooth brushes all sorted neatly into the correctly sized compartment in the drawers beneath the wash basin.
This is in stark contrast to the narrator’s own home life. Amongst his many other problems, her father is a hoarder and a compulsive shopper. There’s a lot of detail about this, and the resulting piles of stuff, dirt and smell in the flat—so viscerally described that it may have you, like me, flying around your home putting all unwanted items in a pile for the nearest charity shop. He’s an unusual loner, who’s worked at the chemical plant for 40 years, lived always with, or next to, his own parents, and has no ambition or curiosity about the world beyond his own circumscribed daily life. The narrator comments that the only time he had a desire that he acted on was when he met her mother at a local music gig and asked her out. Her mother is Turkish, joined her sister in Germany for work, and then got together with the father. She does her best to deal with his problems—as well as dutifully caring for her elderly father-in-law in the flat downstairs—but their relationship deteriorates, and by the time the narrator is at secondary school she’s hearing their rows, shouting and worse, more and more frequently, often cowering in her grandfather’s flat downstairs. And he’s useless at offering any support when she tries to talk to him about what’s happening.
So it’s with this family background that the narrator starts secondary school at the age of 10. Like Sophia and Pikka, she’s been selected for the Gymnasium or grammar school. (For those unfamiliar with the German school system, it’s selective, and pupils are recommended for the more academic school, the Gymnasium, or the vocational Realschule or Hauptschule, on a combination of their class marks and teacher recommendation). It’s here that she really feels she doesn’t fit in, the other girls with their filigree hair tied back, her with her wiry hair worn loose over her hoodie, its seams yellowed from the cigarette smoke that penetrates every fibre in the flat. She responds to this, and to the difficulties at home, by retreating into silence in class and finding her schoolwork increasingly hard. The teachers’ attitude to this, and to the bullying from other pupils, is that it’s all her fault. There’s a heart breaking scene where she’s pushed to the ground by a boy at school and injured. The teacher calls this an accident, all part of life’s rough and tumble, says she’s too sensitive and needs to develop a thicker skin. She recites this advice to herself often, as if that’ll somehow help her grow this thicker skin, which will then be tough enough to deflect any blows that may rain down upon her ribs.
The result of this really difficult time is that she’s not recommended to proceed to the next stage of the Gymnasium education—and has to leave school. I became a little worried about the novel’s haziness on timings and chronology at this point as I was anxious about this girl in her mid-teens seemingly falling through the net, and spending months hanging about at home doing nothing. Eventually she does go back to education, through the Abendschule, the night school route, and there’s an excellent account of this facility which enables many adults to go back to education to get the Hauptschul- or Realschulabschluss, the equivalent of 5 GCSEs in the UK system, which provide an entry to training or the job market for young people. The narrator achieves this with ease, but by this time she knows what she really wants is to go to university, for which she needs the Abitur– the equivalent of A levels in Germany. She’s given a place at an Oberstufengymnasium– an Upper School, by a head teacher who’s impressed by her determination, and studies there for her A levels, by now considerably older than the other pupils, glad to be rather small and slight, so it’s not too obvious. She’s now flying, passes her Abitur, and achieves her dream of going to university. And in doing so, she leaves her home and her family behind.
This is a really moving and compelling story of a bright girl from a disadvantaged background who falls through the net and yet makes it in the end. Deniz Ohde’s powerful and detailed description of place draws us in to that squalid flat, and yet her parents are presented as complex people, struggling with their own problems, negotiating everyday casual racism as well as trying to shield her from the knowledge of the serious arson attacks against Turkish households, (Mölln and Solingen aren’t mentioned by name but these attacks immediately come to mind). They are people who don’t understand the codes of the middle-class selective grammar school world, and though they try to help her at times, they’re also intimidated by the teachers—her father guiltily recollects a parents’ evening with nasty Herr Kaiser when he realises that Herr K is talking about a different pupil. Yet he doesn’t dare intervene to put the teacher right.
The novel is also an indictment in my view of the selective school system and its perpetuation of class inequalities. The sense of the Gymnasium as a school for the elite comes through and permits the condescending and racist attitudes of teachers like Herr Kaiser to flourish. Later, at the Abendschule and Obergymnasium, the narrator meets individual teachers who are interested in her and support her—often so crucial in narratives of achieving academically against all the odds—yet this cannot compensate for the missed experience of learning alongside her peers, of achieving milestones alongside the kids she started out with. Now towards the end, I felt the novel ran out of steam a little—and indeed the narrator has finished university and is unsure what she’s going to do next. But the ending takes us back to that wedding visit, where the narrator sees Sophia and Pikka marry, in the hometown where they will settle, just like their parents. She hugs them, says a swift goodbye to her father and leaves, before she’d planned to. She’s not yet sure what her future looks like, but she’s certain she needs to leave for good to make it happen.