Long Days, Short Sentences

Earlier this week, I published my wrap-up post for this year’s German Literature Month.  However, Lizzy (for a variety of reasons) decided to extend the event for a further week – leaving me with just enough time to sneak in another review 🙂

Unusually though, I actually read this one in English.  I’m rather hesitant to read German-language books in translation, but after receiving a surprise package from the nice people at Comma Press, I decided to make an exception…

*****
Maike Wetzel’s Long Days (translated by Lyn Marven) is a short collection of nine stories, primarily focused on turning points in life.  The stories mainly concern young people (teenagers, adolescents, young adults) dealing with important, life-changing events.  Time slows down from the usual frenetic pace, allowing the narrator (and the reader) to analyse matters in minute detail.

Some of the main characters are growing up against the backdrop of difficult circumstances.  In Sleep, a young girl gradually becomes aware of the custody battle raging between her mentally-ill mother and her grandmother, realising that she is a pawn in a game which started long before her birth.  Shadows shows us the effect a girl’s battle with anorexia has on the rest of her family, primarily her younger, impressionable sister.  While both these stories end without disaster, the reader would find it difficult to be optimistic about the protagonists’ futures…

Even when the characters are a little older, life doesn’t become any easier.  The drama student in Frosted Glass struggles to cope with her move to the big city, especially after the recent loss of her father.  In Enlightenment, the main character is more of an observer, studying the theory of biology at school and on a field trip to the gynaecologist’s, while fully aware of the practical applications of the subject from what is happening around her in the classroom.

Wetzel’s creations are far from all being victims though; in fact, there are several stories in the collection which verge on creepy.  Witnesses, the first story (possibly my favourite), has a young woman telling her partner about the time she found a dead body.  Rather than simply relating the story though, details are added throughout several retellings, each time both adding to the whole picture and subtracting from the narrator’s reliability.

When it comes to creepy though, Poor Knights takes the cake (or fried breakfast snack, as is the case).  At the start of the story, the reader is given the impression that two friends are talking about someone they once knew, wondering what she might be doing now.  By the end of the story, Wetzel has sketched out a picture of two sisters who turn up on their aunt’s doorstep and simply refuse to leave…

The writer’s style is very simple, with many of the stories consisting of sequences of simple sentences, statements of fact which somehow manage to obscure the truth rather than reveal it.  On the whole, the stories also consist of fairly short, loosely-connected paragraphs, brief snapshots from which the reader must assemble a bigger picture.  There is a sense of unease running through the collection, leaving you with the feeling that while life generally goes on, it would be best not to rely too much on anything – or anyone.

In fact, Long Days is a book built on pessimism.  There is a constant sense of foreboding, and lives are lived under permanent clouds.  In the final story of the collection, Other People’s Windows, Wetzel writes a love story where a man and a woman get together.  So why does it feel anything but happy?  Perhaps it’s sentences like these:

“At heart everything was very simple, they were floating on a steady stream.  They would be each other’s assurance, trust each other, entwine like the ivy which envelops a house.  That’s how their love would grow, dense and green, until no light could penetrate.  One or both of them would reach for the secateurs, and in the end all that would be left would be a pile of branches on the ground.” p.109 (Comma Press, 2008)

It’s not exactly “happy-ever-after” material, is it…

Long Days isn’t quite the book you need if you’re a little down in the dumps, but it is another good Comma Press offering.  Not all of the stories were of the same standard – the two I haven’t mentioned, Two Voices and Overgrown, didn’t really grab me -, but on the whole, reading Long Days is an enjoyable way to spend the evening.

Although I’m not sure that ‘enjoyable’ is quite the right word here…

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