This is the story of Nini and Jameelah, two 14 year old girls living in Berlin, determined to have a good time, which includes losing their virginity, during the school summer holidays. They have considerable freedom to roam around Berlin with a bunch of friends, drinking, smoking both regular cigarettes and joints, shoplifting and ‘practising’ for their first sexual encounter by getting picked up on the Ku’damm and performing some sort of sexual services for money. The most important thing for them at the beginning of the book is their friendship -they have been best mates since primary school and their friendship is exciting and creative- they invent the witty ‘O’ language, replacing ‘a’s ‘ with ‘o’s’ so ‘mit Filter drehen’ ( roll with a filter) becomes ‘mit Folter drohen’ ( to threaten with torture) ( and I don’ t know how this is dealt with in the translation!) as well as the famous Tigermilch, a concoction made from brandy, milk and passion fruit juice. They come from a working class milieu, living in a multicultural housing estate and Jameelah and her mother, Noura are from Iraq, waiting the outcome of what I assume is an asylum application. Also pivotal to the plot is their Bosnian friend, Amir, and his family. And there is a plot beyond the girls’ sexual adventures- by chance they are witness to an act of violence and their different reactions to this drive the plot.
Stefanie de Velasco is a great story teller- I was gripped by the plot development and found the characterisation, particularly of the two main protagonists, absolutely excellent: as the book develops it seems that Jameelah, as an intelligent and strategic thinker, is the stronger character. She is also the most sexually forward and the author handles those differences in their maturity with skilful subtlety. I found myself at times sympathetic to the girls but then also horrified at some of their actions, which can be characterised as lawless at best and occasionally chillingly lacking in empathy. For me these were not entirely likeable heroines.
The treatment of the girls’ sexual experiences had many resonances. They were growing up in a highly sexualised atmosphere, with porn readily available and early sexual experiences the norm and yet the protagonists are shown as children still who enjoy bouncing on the bed at the same as being prepared to strip off in front of adult men. And it is the girls’ activities on the Ku’damm, their sexual activities with adult men which I found disturbing, in contrast to flirtations or sex with boys of their own age. It was this aspect of the book which made it hard for me to agree with comments like ‘Coming- of-Age Roman’ on the book’s cover. Really? Is it a Coming of Age for a 14 year old to prostitute herself? Isn’t this rather abuse, the same sort of abuse of vulnerable girls which we have seen come to light in the last few years in the UK? And of course for girls, early sexual experience carries the risk of unwanted pregnancy, which also features in the story.
So we are shown a world in which early sexual experience is the norm and the consequences of that are meant to shock, which they certainly did for me. Of course there are other important plot strands as well, the cultural norms in Amir’s family as well, the precarity of asylum seekers and recent immigrants, integration. Yet the sexual and gender dimension of the novel remains the most important aspect for me and I feel the message is not an optimistic one. Comparing this novel to Wolfgang’s Herrendorf ‘Tschick’ is helpful as they illustrate perfectly a well known trope in social work, that teenage boys rebel and transgress by breaking the law, whereas teenage girls rebel by having unprotected sex. More worryingly, Jameela’s statement at the end that you carry on loving a man even though he treats you badly, and you can’t do anything to stop yourself, suggests a more long term passivity and collusion which I find really depressing.
Despite this, the novel was full of energy and wit and was successful at putting us inside the head of two disaffected and rootless teenage girls . Stefanie de Velasco is a skilful writer and I’ll be looking out for what she does next.