‘Ohne das Licht hinter sich zu löschen’ [book review]

A review of Streulicht (Sky Glow) by Deniz Ohde

A troubling novel, this one. Deniz Ohde’s debut novel, Streulicht (Sky Glow), shortlisted for last year’s German Book Prize, is in many ways a Bildungsroman – just not what one might expect from the genre. From its setting of an industrial area on the edge of a large city (unnamed, but likely modelled on Frankfurt am Main, where Ohde was born) to its themes of racial exclusion, class distinction, domestic violence and failures in the education system, Streulicht packs a hard punch, holding the mirror up to society far more than to its narrator. Finely written, with the kind of detail that comes from long years of observation, and with an overriding sense of hopelessness that can’t fail to make its readers feel uncomfortable, this is a brave, searching and moving novel in which minor scenes are used to major effect.

Cover image Streulicht

Minor – or better, minimal – is one of the words that first spring to mind when it comes to Ohde’s novel, an assured and graceful literary debut written with all the confidence of a more experienced author. The minor plane is where Ohde directs her focus – her setting is composed of minimal yet telling details that, when combined, create a vivid, almost smothering atmosphere. There are the three chimneys of the industrial park, visible from almost anywhere within the neighbouring suburb in which our narrator grows up. The graffiti on the walls beside the railway line, the plane tracks crisscrossing the sky, the chemical taint of the air, which, despite its obvious pollution, is of ‘the only possible consistency air can have’ (‘die einzig mögliche Konsistenz, die Luft haben kann’). Minimal, too, at least on the surface, are what prove to be the most decisive scenes of the book: a scuffle in the school playground, the handing over of a diploma, our narrator’s mother’s unannounced decision to leave her family simply by walking through the front door and leaving the stairwell light on. Minimal are the words Ohde has chosen for the narration of this deeply discomfiting and all-too-real story: her language is stripped back and reserved, at times almost entirely devoid of emotion, yet imbued with a power impossible to ignore.

The narrator of Streulicht grows up on the edge of the industrial park in which her father, a violent drunk, has worked his whole life. Her mother is Turkish, the product of a harsh upbringing, with a new life in Germany that isn’t what she’d hoped for. As a child, our narrator’s home life contrasts sharply with that of her best friends, Sofia and Pikka, whose fathers don’t require absolute silence while they sleep off a hangover or wake to smash glass objects in place of hitting either child or mother. Forced into silence at home, ignored by her parents and finally abandoned by her mother, our narrator retreats increasingly into herself, until her inability to speak when it matters – a trait shared with and certainly part caused by her father – results in her failing the school leaving certificate. Totally adrift, watching her friends go on to college and university, she manages to claw her way back into the system through night school and goes on to study, only to find herself all but forced to accept a cleaning job. The novel is both a straight telling of this story and a close dissection of an inflexible system: an attempt to find out what went wrong and where things could have been changed. The answer, when it comes, is accompanied by a distressing dose of resignation, a ruthless smashing of any gilded clichés about self-made women or hard work paying off. For our narrator, at least, the problems appear to lie at the heart of the system: in her family, her school, her society, the life to which she was born. A life which taught her to believe she had only two options: ‘. . . blow yourself up or leave and leave quietly, without turning the light off behind you’.

While this sentence makes reference to a real-life suicide, a woman who blew herself up in a church on the edge of Frankfurt, there are many yet more upsetting moments in Streulicht, several of which made me physically wince. The secondary school headmaster hands over an expulsion notice with the same impersonal ‘Congratulations’ he offers other students; Sofia puts a scarf over our narrator’s hair as they walk through a different neighbourhood and tells her she looks ‘just like the people here’; a teacher at the sixth-form college she finally attends deducts marks from her excellent work because she is older than the rest of her class. Ohde narrates these moments unflinchingly, with the same cool detachment she adopts throughout the entire book, yet while at first it seems possible to skim them, they burrow deep into the reader’s conscience and remain there. This novel is by any measure a calling to account, yet its virtue lies in the way that Ohde makes us feel almost as though we are discovering these injustices for ourselves. Streulicht doesn’t rage or shout; instead, there is a quietly simmering anger and unavoidable truth veiled thinly on each page.

Despite the endless procession of degradations, exclusions (on the grounds of her mother’s nationality and family’s social status) and doors slammed in her face, our narrator is not entirely without hope. While Sofia and Pikka eventually marry and move in together, never even seeming to consider that they could leave the place in which they were born, our narrator does dream of a different life, does move to leave her childhood behind. There is, too, a sense of making peace with her past and particularly her father, whom Ohde is compassionate enough to show as a man equally trapped by circumstances. Brief flashes of beauty are offered, even in a setting that would normally never be described as such, yet ‘as long as I lived there,’ says our narrator, ‘I never noticed what was special about that place’ (‘Das besondere an diesem Ort fiel mir nicht auf, solange ich noch dort lebte’). Like the abandoned shed she and her friends play in as children, its special quality lies perhaps in its ordinariness, in its grimy patina and air of neglect. Even in a place like this, there is a sky glow – an unnatural form of light, but light none the less. And surely it can be no coincidence that the final word of the novel is ‘home’.

Bleak, haunting and in several ways necessary – though the setting and details may be specific to Germany, the themes this book tackles are sadly universal – Streulicht is a shattering debut by a young writer who is doubtless one to watch. Written in a minor key with moments of deep empathy and unexpected beauty, it is a powerful example of literature that seeks to calmly but firmly hammer home a reality we can no longer choose to ignore.

Streulicht by Deniz Ohde is published by Suhrkamp Verlag and currently available only in German.

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