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