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Book cover Esther and Salomon

Elisabeth SteinkellnerMichael Roher
Esther und Salomon
[Esther and Salomon]

Translation Grant Programme
For this title we provide support for translation into the Italian language (2022 - 2024).

When words are not enough

The Austrian novelist Elisabeth Steinkellner is a true expert when it comes to portraying young love and its emotional turmoil. That tricky passage we have to negotiate when passing from childhood to adulthood is explored in her novels with a delicacy rarely matched by other writers. In Rabensommer (‘Raven summer’) as also in Die Nacht, die Falter und ich (‘The night, the moth, and me’), she tells of the ecstasy and the self-doubt that seize hold of her heroines following the initial flood of emotions. The same trajectory is also followed here by Esther, on holiday by the Mediterranean with her little sister Flippa and her constantly arguing parents. Most of the time she escapes to the beach with her little sister – where she happens on Salomon, a boy who has been told to look after his sister Aisha, who is the same age as Flippa.

The two little girls become best friends on the spot, and although initially tentative, the relationship between Esther and Salomon soon begins to develop. Esther sneaks out of the hotel at night in order to meet up with Salomon. The sheer delicacy with which Elisabeth Steinkellner evokes the young couple’s initial intimacies bears witness to her absolute mastery of her craft. She is particularly skillful at conveying complex emotions through the subtlety of her word-painting. Following one of her nocturnal forays Esther is rumbled by her parents, and there is an almighty row. But the shared intimacy of love gives people strength, and makes even a girl of fourteen feel indomitable. The holiday is soon going to come to an end, however –

As we read Esther’s narrative we periodically come across polaroid photographs, taken by Elisabeth Steinkellner herself but attributed to Esther. These images of shadows infused with love, of dazzling fireworks, are not in themselves as powerfully expressive as the words they accompany, but they serve to bring out the meanings known or suspected to lurk within the words by playing on the young reader’s own ways of seeing things. At the very end of the novel’s first part, however, there is a highly telling photograph of the two teenagers – revealing for the first time that Salomon’s skin is black.

From this point on it is his voice that recounts the story, and with this we enter a completely new dimension of life. Following his father’s murder in an unnamed African country, Salomon and his mother fled across the Mediterranean in dramatic circumstances and made it to Europe. His mother – previously a schoolteacher – gets a job in a hotel. She becomes involved with another man, and as a result Salomon no longer feels at home even with her. Esther rapidly becomes his emotional sheet anchor – but how is he to tell her that? Again and again the novel poses the question as to how language can find effective expression at the very extremes of human emotion.

Then Salomon’s mother suffers an accident, and uncertainty becomes the predominant theme of the novel. Already moving at speed by this stage, it now gathers even more momentum and develops an intensity that takes the reader’s breath away. Elisabeth Steinkellner’s decision to use prose-poetry for her novel – meaning that there are sometimes only two sentences per page – will no doubt go down well with her young readers: although the book runs to over three hundred pages, the verse form gives the narrative voices of Esther and Salomon a captivating immediacy right from the very first line.

Esther’s Polaroids have their counterpart in Salomon’s sketches, drawn in reality by the illustrator Michael Roher. Delicately shaded in black and white, they depict items such as a teapot and a bunch of flowers. This concentrated focus on everyday objects helpfully enables the reader to draw breath amidst the dramatic onrush of the narrative. The design of the cover and overall layout as well as the choice of typography are equally exquisite. One can only hope that this young-adult novel finds a large readership, dealing as it does with the highly topical subject of migration, combined with the finely drawn emotions of a young couple’s first experience of love.

Translated by John Reddick

Book cover Esther and Salomon

By Thomas Linden

​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.