Category: Fiction

Ricarda Junge
Die komische Frau
[The strange woman]

Novel

Review

Ricardas Junge’s most recent novel, "The Strange Woman," starts out like one of those stories you think you know all too well: a young woman in her late twenties has just broken up with the father of her child. Lena is an author and journalist and a casualty of the financial crisis which has hit newspaper and magazine freelancers hardest. Her future is uncertain, but not bleak. Everything will turn out fine, just as it always has in the past.

Leander (Lena’s ex) is supposed to move out at Easter, while she is visiting her parents’ home on the Baltic Sea with her two-year-old son Adrian. After a few days with the family, she decides to return to her apartment on the former Stalin Allee in Berlin, a once grand and now faded boulevard left over from the GDR era. She and Leander had been raised in West Germany and had moved together to the capital from Hamburg. Like many of her generation who had settled in Berlin, there was very little that distinguished her from her peers.

The reader suspects fairly early on, i.e. after the first few sentences, that the story is anything but commonplace. Told in a confessionary mode, the pathetic tone of voice hardly corresponds to the otherwise straightforward, subdued language of the story: "What follows is my account of the strange events that occurred between April 13th and May 10th at the house on Löwestraße 1, in Berlin-Friedrichshain. Of course, I’m aware there may very well be a psychological, rational explanation for the events of these last weeks, but it momentarily escapes me. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but, for my part, I'll try to limit myself to describing what happened as accurately as possible. My faith will be my shield: the faith in the purifying, soothing and rejuvenating power of the spoken and written word.” A declaration of this sort suggests a person in need of getting something off her chest; a person who thinks writing will help avert disaster. The truthful account turns into a magical ritual; its ultimate meaning found in the language itself: "But whatever happens, it happens with a word. Thought, spoken, written, concealed."

Initially, we see very little of the dramatic experiences she alludes to. At most, we are witness to the minor inconveniences of the narrator’s daily life. When she returns home, for example, she discovers Leander hadn’t moved out—the apartment he was supposed to rent was no longer available. Job offers continued to be rare as ever, but that was nothing new, her friends and acquaintances were suffering the same difficulties finding work: "The fallout is catching up to us." But things start happening that have little to do with being a single working mother – the burners on the stove start to glow, at night the heaters suddenly grow hot, windows fly open, and her young son Adrian starts fearing a "strange woman," who seems to be omnipresent, even if she is never seen. Possibly she is a figment of his imagination, but she is also somehow very real.

The narrator counters the growing sense she is losing control, and the insecurity that comes with it, by writing memos and lists of things to do. She reads her old books on theology from her university days, but ultimately she begins to believe she is the strange woman her son fears—in fact, she doesn’t really know who she is anymore, for she really has grown strange. Gradually, she discovers explanations for what is happening, but they are no less uncanny.

Just as the old floorboards creak under the newly laid laminate flooring, the story of the house and its former occupants is still present. Germany’s recent tumultuous history: war, division and reunification have left their mark on this household. The dead do not rest in peace, and the living are suffering from a guilt that can neither be forgiven nor forgotten. The spirits of the past have turned into ghosts.

It is no coincidence that Lena's mother is the first to figure out what is going on and to help her daughter find the connections. Her family’s fate had also been affected by the political upheavals of the twentieth century and the repressed and unspoken story of her mother’s escape to the West had long been a taboo subject. The real focus of the novel is about memory and the enduring consequences of the past. Only by accepting and embracing the past is it possible to come to terms with it. The protagonist also realizes, in terms of her own life and history, that the relationship to the father of her child, though over, is not finished: " I’m not sure whether—and if so—what extent my relationship to Leander is connected to the events of recent weeks."

In this multilayered and deftly constructed book, the award-winning author (b. 1979 in Wiesbaden) shows us that literature can help us to deal with the present and future by confronting the spirits of the past: "People are born and die, countries are created and destroyed, something captures a generation like a dream that can’t be remembered upon waking. What remains is a slight irritation that each person tries to make sense of in their own way."
Matthias Weichelt

By Matthias Weichelt, 01.11.2011

​Matthias Weichelt is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Sinn und Form. He writes for a number of publications including the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" and the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung".

Translated by Edith C. Watts