The IFFP magical mystery tour has taken us to several places this year, but inevitably the path keeps bringing us back to Germany (unsurprising when you consider that a third of the books chosen by the judges were by writers of that nationality). However, today we’ve finally reached the last of our Teutonic texts – it’s time to let our hair down and have a few drinks.
Not sure I’m too keen on what’s on offer, though…
Tiger Milk by Stefanie de Velasco – Head of Zeus (translated by Tim Mohr)
What’s it all about?
Nina and Jameelah, two fourteen-year-old girls in Berlin, are getting ready for the summer holidays. School’s almost out, and it’ll soon be time to laze about at the outdoor swimming pool, cruise the city streets and get drunk on ‘Tiger Milk’, their own lethal invention of milk, maracuja juice and brandy.
Their main aim for the holidays, though, is to have sex, and they already have their targets in sight. However, life rarely works out the way you expect it to, and over the long hot summer, the girls will discover what it’s really about – particularly when you see something you really shouldn’t have…
Let’s get this out of the way now: Tiger Milk was, for me, easily the weakest of the books on the longlist, a novel which is completely out of place in this company. Of the Shadow jurors who’ve read the book, most agreed, and I don’t think I’m breaking confidentiality too much by saying that this was rock bottom of our list. I’m not going to spend the post tearing it to pieces, though, because it’s not de Velasco’s fault; this is a YA novel, and I’m not a YA reader. Let’s just blame the judges for sending the book into a gun fight armed only with a lollipop 😉
The aim of the novel is to explore the youth of present-day Berlin, a multicultural metropolis far from the stereotypes of Germany past. Jameelah is from Iraq, and she and her mother are hoping to receive German citizenship, always aware that visas can be revoked at any time. Nini is also friends with teens from Bosnia and Serbia, and the way in which distant conflicts carry over into foreign lands is to form one of the main strands of the story.
As well as being multicultural, the setting for Tiger Milk is a predominantly working-class one. The girls are living very much in the here and now, mainly because there may not be much of a future to think of – and because (for Nini, at least) role models are thin on the ground. Her mother lies around in a daze for the most part, and her younger sister is constantly fooling around with a neighbour, watching porn she finds hidden in the house. With the future a distant and uncertain prospect, it’s litle surprise that the focus is on enjoying yourself while you can.
Nini has a rather childish voice (unsurprising for a child…), and this comes through when she talks about the world around her:
“Last year there was a stabbing at the pool, so this summer it’s crawling with security. I think it’s good because now people are afraid to steal things. But it’s not really as dangerous a place as it sounds.”
p.39 (Head of Zeus, 2014)
One of the book’s stronger aspects is the way in which the babyish behaviour lulls the reader into a false sense of security, so that when matters really do become serious (in the one truly great scene in the book), we are completely blindsided…
The second half of the book is slightly darker, and de Velasco explores Nini’s feelings as the summer progresses: the sexual experimentation, the attempts to work through the shock of what she’s witnessed and the realisation that she and Jameelah, while close, have very different lives. Living in Germany is very different to being German, a lesson Nini has to learn very quickly.
The book starts with two care-free girls at the start of a seemingly endless summer, two young souls having fun:
“We take turns drinking Tiger Milk, we look into the sky and say nothing, we just let life float by because we have so much time, because the clock has only just struck fourteen minutes past birth, meaning that we have almost fifty minutes of life to go, and that’s a long time.” (p.91)
Having finished the book, I now find this a sad passage. The truth is that life doesn’t run at a constant pace, and the sands of your life can run more quickly at times – or disappear altogether…
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, and it was out of place on the longlist. This is another of those books selected for a wider reading audience, a novel to show people that fiction in translation isn’t all high-brow and challenging. It’s a nice idea, but if you wouldn’t do it for the Man Booker Prize, why should you do it for the IFFP?
Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
Because it wasn’t good enough. Moving on…
All of which leaves us with just one more of the chosen destinations to visit. Let’s head west, crossing the border (and winding back the decades) on the way. Our final stop is Belgium, where we’ll see that while some things were similar a century ago, other things were very different indeed.
No Tiger Milk in sight, I guarantee it 😉