‘Das Mädchen’ has an unforgettable beginning: shit is raining down on passers by in the street of an unspecified German town. The head and arm of the girl throwing it can be seen from a third floor window of a shabby block of flats, yet the passers’ by main concern is to step aside, to avoid being hit- and to pass on by. This is the beginning of this short, yet powerful story of child abuse, set in East Germany some time before reunification and published recently, in 2013.
The narrative voice switches to that of das Mädchen, ‘the girl’ in English, whose name we never discover. She is 12 and her brother, Alex, 6 and they have been locked in the flat by their mother for the past 6 days, unable to get out to the shared toilet on the landing. Their food has run out, she spends her time dressing up in her mother’s clothes and doing sexy dancing on the table to attract the attention of the factory workers opposite, while Alex plays listlessly with his toy cars. When they hear their mother’s key turn in the lock, they cower in fear, aware of the mess the flat is in- but she walks past them without a word- neither greeting nor reprimand.
And so the story goes on: a chaotic home life where the girl endures repeated beatings for minor misdemeanours, or for none at all, where she is locked in the cellar, screamed and shouted at by her mother, occasionally petted but not in a way she can trust or rely on. The mother has all the characteristics of a damaged individual who has not grown up: the children are tasked with running the house, the girl takes over almost all the mothering of her baby brother Elvis, while the mother drinks and wraps herself around numerous boyfriends. Not only does there seem to be a complete absence of maternal love, but the mother’s cruelty verges on the sadistic in one or two instances.
By seeing the story through the girl’s eyes, we experience her fear and anxiety around the unpredictability of her mother but also her way of enduring the physical abuse: she detaches herself from what is happening, picturing herself flying off like a bird, emotionally absenting and numbing herself. She is an imaginative child and seeks solace and escape in books where she can. In reality, her response is to engage in reckless and dangerous behaviour, to shoplift compulsively and to lash out in violence and anger herself.
It is after one such incident of reckless behaviour that she ends up in a children’s home- her mother didn’t want her- and the second half of the book is set in the home. While the adult world continues to work in ways which seem random and harsh at times- the nasty police officer she calls ‘the Fat One’ and the director of the children’s home who hits her- the routines seem helpful, she gradually makes friends and experiences the emotional highs and lows of adolescence. At first she stays in the home during the holidays as her mother doesn’t want her, but then one summer is summoned to return. Like her,we the readers hope things have turned a corner, only to be let down badly. And she’s not the only one to feel disappointed- with characteristic succintness, Klüssendorf describes the bus returning the children to the home at the end of the holidays- they are quiet and want to be left alone with their bruises.
The novel ends with the girl leaving the home, finishing school and entering the world of work. She ends up with an apprenticeship working with cattle on a farm, considered one of the least enviable options by the other school leavers. She takes desperate measures to escape which don’t work and the novel ends with her fantasising again about flying off and disappearing. So just as there is no particular plot but rather a series of scenes and experiences from the girl’s childhood and adolescence, so there is no particular denouément: this lack of direction worked for me as it seemed to reflect the random lack of direction, the chaos in her life.
I appreciated too the narrative tone, which recounted events and feelings with a simple matter of factness. At times this seemed to mirror the girl’s numbness and detachment.At other times, particularly where the writer repeated the sentence structure- she did this, she did that- deliberately avoiding the more fluid and varying German sentence structure- I had the feeling of someone holding themselves tightly in, breathing shallowly, lest any variation would unleash a catastrophic outpouring of unpredictable emotion. And this detachment of tone used to depict the ‘everyday’ abuse then makes the handful of shocking and random acts of cruelty really stand out.
So this is not an easy read but it is a sensitive and powerful tale of parental neglect and the damage done to young people through abuse. Should we be asking whether it is significant that the story takes place in East Germany? I don’t know what the writer’s intentions were here but from what I’ve read in the general press, child abuse and neglect was rife and often unchallenged in many countries in the 1980s, regardless of political systems. What I want to know at the end is whether the damage done to her is irreparable- will she repeat the cycle of abuse in behaviours learned from her mother or will she find a way to put them behind her and to learn to forge loving and nurturing relationships? The story continues in the sequel ‘April’ which I’ll certainly be reading -but after a pause for some deep breaths.