Category Archives: Zeh Julie

New Year: Julie Zeh

Holidays tend to reveal the submerged fabric of our emotional lives and this is certainly true in Julie Zeh’s novel, New Year. Married Henning secretly books a trip to Lanzarote for Christmas away from their apartment in Gottingen. His wife Theresa isn’t thrilled at first as the trip is hard to make with two small children, aged 2 and 4.

Night after night he surfed the web, looking through images of white sea-foam on black beaches, of palms and volcanos and a landscape that resembled the interior of a stalactite cave. He pored over charts showing average temperatures and forwarded his findings to Theresa. But mostly he clicked through countless images of whitewashed villas for rent. One after another, night after night, until late. He’d plan to stop at a certain point and go to bed, but then he’d click on the next listing. He’d devour each image, voracious as an addict, almost as if he were looking for a specific house.

While Henning looks hungrily at the villas, his final choice is much more modest–a townhouse that’s “within their budget.” Henning’s online search through the villas for rent is traded for a tiny townhouse and a holiday “prix-fixe” dinner at a local hotel. It really isn’t Henning and Theresa’s scene but Theresa has the lucky ability to “make-the-best-of it [is] like a pre-programmed setting she shifts into the moment anything goes awry.” Not so Henning. As the novel continues, it’s clear that Henning suffers from panic attacks. This is something fairly new for Henning, and perhaps this partly explains his obsession to be in Lanzarote for the New Year. When the novel opens, he’s strenuously cycling with the mantra “New Year, new you.” Henning’s cycling trip is infused with various memories: Theresa’s annoying self-focused parents who have relocated to Italy, Henning’s absent father, Werner, Henning’s restless troubled sister, Luna, and Henning’s mother–a woman who made sure that her children knew just how much she sacrificed for her children:

Because of them, she’d renounced friends, men, parties, travel, art, reading, films, theater, stimulating conversations, and a better job. Every day, she declared how, because of them, she was condemned to a life that neither suited her or pleased her.

Predictably, Henning’s mother has no interest in his children. Theresa’s parents, Rolf and Marlies, on the other hand, who visit once or twice a year, are only interested in each other. They bring the grandkids unsuitable gifts, and it’s the Rolf and Marlies show–and every show needs an audience:

As they eat, they yammer on and on mostly with one another, as if they haven’t seen each other in ages. Rolf tells Marlies how lucky they were to find that apartment in Rome. Marlies asks Rolf if he, like she, finds German artisans far superior to Roman ones. They tease one another, correct one another, and enlist Henning and Theresa as audience for a conversation they clearly find riveting and hilarious, all the while thoroughly ignoring Bibbi and Jonas until they start bickering.

The holiday serves to highlight the discord in Henning and Theresa’s life, but one can never run away from one’s childhood, and Henning runs right into a repressed memory.

The holiday and the familial relationships ring all too true. The novel includes child neglect so readers who are sensitive to that issue should be aware.

Review copy. Translated by Alta T. Price

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Decompression by Julie Zeh

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for the unreliable narrator, so throw in a holiday setting, and it was guaranteed that I’d be interested in Julie Zeh’s book, Decompression a torrid tale of a love triangle told in alternating views by two sides of that twisted relationship.

Years before, Sven slipped the leash of a legal career in Germany and now, looking at his 40th birthday, he’s a resident of Lanzarote and runs a tourist business which allows him to combine his love for diving with independence. He’s lived on Lanzarote now for 14 years. He’s in charge of the diving side of things while Antje runs the actual business. That means she cleans the guest accommodations, cooks the meals, maintains the website, and manages all the finances. Note that I didn’t say that Antje is Sven’s girlfriend or S.O, and there’s a reason for that. While Sven and Antje live together and have sex, she occupies an undefined space in Sven’s life. She probably thinks she’s his girlfriend, but Sven sees the relationship more as a convenient business arrangement. And if you’re thinking that I don’t like Sven, you’re right.

decompressionThe book opens with Sven picking up two tourists from the airport. Usually he books several guests for the same period, but this is a special arrangement. This time Sven is exclusively under contract for the next two weeks to only two guests: writer, Theo and soap opera actress Jolanthe, also called Jola. Theo, who, at 42, is 12 years older than Jola, has one book to his credit, and Jola, who intends to bust out of television into film, is there to learn all about scuba diving hoping that she will land a major film role in a biopic about Charlotte Hass. Jola, the daughter of one of the world’s greatest film directors, sees the role as her “last chance” to leave television roles behind, so the diving lessons are of primary importance.

In very little time, Sven, who lives in the beachside cottage right next to his guests’ quarters, establishes that Theo and Jola have a twisted sick relationship which, as it turns out, includes violence as an erotic component. Sven is attracted to Jola, and the feeling appears to be mutual. While there’s a definite attraction between Sven and Jola (with both of them fantasizing about a future together), Theo, the odd man out in this sex-triangle, conveniently seems to step aside to allow Sven access to Jola.

The story unfolds through two dueling narratives. There’s Sven’s version, and then there’s Jola’s version of events. While these competing narratives agree on the basics: date, location, and weather, on everything else, all agreement ends. According to Sven, Jola teases and plays dangerous games, creating some very awkward and embarrassing situations since, as a client, she’s theoretically off limits. But listen to Jola, and she’ll tell you that Sven can’t keep his hands to himself. In this increasingly dangerous and risky situation, who do we believe?

Part of the sick joy of reading a story told by the unreliable narrator is the feeling that we, as readers, recognize the way truth slowly peels away from the narrative. Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here and Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks are both excellent examples of the unreliable narrator and give the reader the experience of being in the minds of total nutjobs who do terrible things while justifying all their actions quite merrily. Decompression is more a he said/she said scenario, and yes, while that gives us possibly two unreliable narrators, one of them may be telling the truth. Or at least a partial truth.

While the novel’s premise is intriguing, one of the problems is that Sven, Jola and even Theo are all unlikable characters–not that there’s a problem with unlikable characters as I enjoy reading about people I would not tolerate in my life. But Sven, who’s got this hot babe throwing herself at him under the nose of Theo, alone at night, begins masturbating to episodes of Jola’s soap role in Up and Down, and yet by day, according to his narrative, he’s prudishly pushing her away telling her that she’s off-limits. He’s drawn to Jola but simultaneously gets very bad vibes about the situation. He isn’t honest with himself, so is he honest with us? His confessional narrative which includes a wisp of victimhood could make him a reliable narrator–a man drawn into the very sick relationship between Theo and Jola, or this could make Sven somewhat unreliable too.  He’s certainly struggling to stay focused on his better self, and that struggle remains until a very dramatic but foreseeable scene which occurs towards the end of the book.

Jola’s diary, which forms her part of the book’s narrative, reads like the confessions of a spoiled teenage girl flexing her sexuality for the first time rather than the devious, seasoned mind of a femme fatale, and this is part of the novel’s weakness. While the two narratives verge and diverge, neither of them are strong enough or appealing enough to carry the plot. Sven had his problems before this famous couple arrive and play havoc with his island paradise. He can’t commit to his long-suffering girlfriend and seems embarrassed to admit that there’s anything between them other than business. When it comes to sport for Theo and Jola, he’s ripe for the picking, and he never quite gets the rules of the game. As a morally compromised character drawn into a relationship in which he’s out-of-his-depth, his questionable narrative doesn’t quite work. For this reader, Theo remains the most interesting side of this sick triangle, and yet we only see Theo opaquely through other people’s eyes. Ultimately, the novel’s best scenes describe the landscape or the underwater moments between Sven and his troublesome clients.

The Spaniards had long since given up tinkering around on their half-finished houses; instead they would sit on their driftwood fenced roof terraces while the salty wind gnawed the plaster off their walls. Wooden cable spools served as tables, stacked construction pallets as benches. Lahora was a terminus. A place where everything came to a halt. Furnished with objects that would have landed on the rubbish pile long ago if they were anywhere else. The ends of the earth.

 Review copy. Translated from German by John Cullen

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