Category: Children's Books

Elisabeth Steinkellner
Rabensommer
[Raven summer]

Novel

A bleeding heart - Elizabeth Steinkellner’s impressive debut novel about coming-of-age

"Ronja smells sweet, she smells of vanilla, she smells of a balmy summer night, like this one," gushes Ronja's best friend Juli, during an ecstatic moment when all is still well with the world for the two girls and their friends Niels and August. Juli has just passed her final exams and is now standing at the threshold of childhood and the adult world and this makes her particularly sensitive and hungry for love. We sense, however, there are atmospheric disturbances in the air between her and her boyfriend Niels, but it can't yet be put into words.

Elisabeth Steinkellner's novel revolves around this very fragile moment in the young girl's life, and she shows it in all its myriad forms. Niels has fallen in love with another girl and her best friend Ronja has moved to London. August is her confidant, but when she visits her friend at a stranger's apartment, she realizes August also has a secret. Life holds a number of surprises for Juli and they are as thrilling as they are frightening. Elisabeth Steinkellner masters a language that plumbs the depths of this ambivalence.

Earning a diploma may signify a step towards adulthood, but the maturity needed to live that life has yet to be achieved. The Austrian writer describes the process of growing up in all its painful, but also sensual complexity. We watch Juli as she grows independent, moves to the big city to study at the university, hunts for her first own apartment, fixes it up with a girlfriend, and makes her first tentative contacts. A young woman who takes her path, while remaining sensitive and thin-skinned. The failure of her first love pains her, and she is confused by men who need both closeness and distance because it makes them unpredictable.

Juli grows melancholy, today we call it depression, but this term lacks the element of suffering from a bleeding heart. While the first half of the novel intensely explores the girl's lust for life, blissful feelings of friendship and eroticism, the second part is dotted with diary entries that make Juli's melancholy palpable for the reader. Steinkellner creates an emotional rollercoaster with all of life's highs and lows, and she aptly shows us the uncertainty of a person, who has just been rejected by her first love. Juli struggles through the dullness of her everyday life and Elisabeth Steinkellner shows us how a mere protagonist can mature into a hero.

At first glance, it appears as if her protagonists are lacking nothing in their modern, independent lifestyle, but we soon are shown another side that is marked by loneliness and psychological distress. Juli finds a path that leads her from the depths to a new and totally different kind of love. Although, Elisabeth Steinkellner fulfills the classical requirements of a coming-of-age novel, nothing about her prose seems constructed or dramaturgically contrived, Rabensommer is a unified whole, a debut that brings a new and distinctive voice to German young adult literature. A skillfully executed plot and keen ear for the delicate stirrings of the heart need not be a contradiction in terms.

The sincerity of this prose is reminiscent of Lara Schützsack's equally impressive debut novel "Und auch so bitter kalt" [And so bitterly cold] which was published in 2014. She, too, followed her protagonist in her downward spiral of melancholy. This year, Rabensommer has proven to be the most important novel that German language young adult literature has to offer.
Thomas Linden

By Thomas Linden, 31.03.2016

​Thomas Linden is a journalist (Kölnische Rundschau, WWW.CHOICES.DE) specializing in the areas of literature, theater and film. He also curates exhibitions on photography and picture book illustration.