It’s that time of year again – we ask people we have worked with over the last 12 months to share their favourite reads with us.
Read on for literary inspiration for the holiday period!
Jamie Bulloch, Literary Translator
Die Wut, die bleibt by Mareike Fallwickl
Of all the books we’ve considered for NBG this year, my stand-out title is Mareike Fallwickl’s Die Wut, die bleibt. This uncompromising tale of young female vigilantes who gang up to punish abusive male behaviour is stylishly told and not without humour. The fairytale city of Salzburg, where the story is set, provides an incongruous backdrop to the brutality of the narrative.
Einmal noch sterben by Oliver Bottini
My other 2022 German-language highlight is Oliver Bottini’s Einmal noch sterben. Set in the run-up to the Second Gulf War, this beautifully crafted spy thriller is centred on a piece of crucial evidence proving that Iraq does not have weapons of mass destruction. Bottini pits the German government against a powerful faction in the foreign intelligence service (BND) to produce a narrative of stunning complexity that seems always to be one step ahead of the reader. Germany might have found its le Carré.
The Promise by Damon Galgut
My English-language choice needs no introduction. Damon Galgut’s The Promise, a compelling family saga about an Afrikaner family living on a farm outside of Pretoria and their black domestic servant, won the 2021 Booker Prize. Blending a first- and third-person narrative, the focus shifts seamlessly from one character to another, resulting in a stylistic tour-de-force.
Juliane Camfield, Director, Deutsches Haus at NYU, New York
Vor aller Augen (‘In Plain Sight’) by Martina Clavadetscher
In her splendid new book ‘In Plain Sight’, Martina Clavadetscher (winner of the 2021 Swiss Book Prize for her fabulous novel, ‘The Invention of Disobedience’) shares the astonishing stories of nineteen women whose portraits, mostly created by male painters, are world-renowned, yet about whose lives we know regrettably little. To remedy this lack, to provide these women with names and voices of their own, Clavadetscher reclaims their lives by incarnating their long-overdue perspectives through her extraordinary literary sketches. Weaving together fact and fiction with great versatility and poetic sensibility, Clavadetscher creates a wonderfully diverse chorus of women’s voices — each story unique, and all the stories together a testament to the power and importance of female storytelling.
Rosie Goldsmith, Journalist & Director, European Literature Network
Tyll is a stunning achievement, an entertaining and philosophical novel about the ravages of war and religious divide, with Tyll, a thrilling central character of Shakespearean depth and breadth. The novel is a breathtaking testament to Daniel Kehlmann’s great intellect, imagination and meticulous skills as a literary historian. Tyll is a jester, the ultimate survivor, probably still alive somewhere in Europe today, on a battlefield or in a village, theatre or royal court; the living, breathing hero of this outstanding European novel of our times.
Annemarie Goodridge, Translation Programmes Coordinator, Goethe-Institut, London
I can’t think of any other books which have dealt with the topic of living/being alone in such an honest and insightful way. Despite living in an age of individualism, being single remains at the bottom of the relationship hierarchy. Daniel Schreiber’s book is no self-help guide, but it addresses difficult questions and challenges assumptions without seeking to offer glib solutions. ‘Alone’ draws on Daniel’s lived experience as a gay, single man, and combines personal reflection with insights from philosophical, literary and social commentators. The book explores the impact of the pandemic, the complexity of friendships, and potential sources of solace for the single person.
Palace of Flies by Walter Kappacher
Palace of Flies was, unexpectedly, my favourite book club read this year – unexpected because I’d never come across the highly rated Austrian author, Walter Kappacher, before. This literary novel recalls elements of Death in Venice in its evocation of an artist struggling with blocked creativity and set amidst the sultry late summer atmosphere of an Alpine holiday resort in 1924. The artist in question is the Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannstahl (1874-1929), limited knowledge about whom does not spoil enjoyment of Kappacher’s gentle, empathetic and subtle storytelling. The novel is a sensitive and imaginative portrayal of the alienated author’s mindset as he grapples with a sense of failure and decline amidst a fragmented European cultural landscape, shattered by war.
Tanja Howarth, Tanja Howarth Literary Agency
Instead of choosing a favourite book, I would like to name my favourite writer of the year: Andrey Kurkov, whose characters in Death and the Penguin, Penguin Lost and Grey Bees are unforgettable, lovable, tragicomic people who give us a glimpse into life in a post-Soviet isolated Ukraine. His dark humour is infectious.
Geoffrey Howes, Professor Emeritas, Worlds, Languages and Culture, Bowling Green State University
Die Gemochten by Lydia Mischkulnig
In this short story collection, Mischkulnig is exquisitely attuned to the everyday life of the imagination. Her characters live more in their heads than in the world, and accompanying them, we realize that life is already literary. The narratives, the inventions, just need to be teased out. I write ‘just’ and think how hard this mere imagining is, and how Lydia Mischkulnig has spent decades refining the portrayal of mental negotiations with ourselves. (She does it masterfully in her 2020 novel Die Richterin). She journeys into the minds of parents, mourners, lovers (or ‘likers’ —’die Gemochten’), teachers, filmmakers, spouses, therapists, bodies (one protagonist is identified as ‘the body’), and of course writers. But these are also mental negotiations with others, and Mischkulnig switches from mind to mind in a way that films and scripted series (the major art forms of our times) can only dream of.
Jamie Lee Searle, Literary Translator
My stand-out read of 2022 is undoubtedly Blutbuch by Swiss author Kim de l’Horizon. This novel, their debut, won the German and Swiss book prizes, and explores the gender-fluid narrator’s family history and self-identity. I love how the author plays so creatively with language and structure. It’s a transfixing read that challenges and inspires.
Eve Mason, NBG Intern
My favourite read of this year was published in 2020, Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. It’s engrossing, candid and tender, with sparkling moments of dark comedy. The novel follows Martha Friel, a woman who has just turned forty and whose husband has just moved out. We learn of Martha’s long history of mental illness since she was seventeen – she has gone through multiple diagnoses, but we are never told what she ultimately suffers from. Suffice to say, there are frequent depressive episodes that hinder her family life, her career and cause her to alienate her loved ones. Despite the dark themes, the novel and its witty protagonist bring you to laughter again and again. I haven’t stopped recommending it since I put it down.
Café der Unsichtbaren by Judith Kuckart
I was really pleased to see how quickly the English rights for Judith Kuckart’s Café der Unsichtbaren (‘Café of the Invisibles’) were snapped up, because that was my favourite of the NBG picks this autumn. It has the unlikely setting of a telephone counselling service – the novella shines a light on the lives of its seven volunteers, as well as the people who call in wanting help or just a listening ear. I think the Covid pandemic showed everyone how deep our need for human connection is, and this book highlighted that in a really tender way.
Alexandra Müller-Crepon, Head of Cultural Affairs, Embassy of Switzerland, London
Aus der Zuckerfabrik by Dorothee Elmiger
Shortlisted for both the German and Swiss Book Prizes in 2020, Dorothee Elmiger’s Aus der Zuckerfabrik (‘Out of the Sugar Factory’) surprises and entertains readers with a wonderful series of reflections upon an unusual subject for contemporary literature: the global sugar manufacturing industry. Elmiger’s novel is as beautifully written as it is thought-provoking, exposing human strengths and weaknesses in its exploration of the passions and ambitions as well as the exploitation and greed that drive those who make their living out of sugar.
Alexandra Roesch, Literary Translator & Scout
This is Irish author Louise Kennedy’s debut novel and follows her highly acclaimed story collection that was published last year. Kennedy worked as a chef for three decades before committing to writing and her experience and maturity make her a convincing writer. Trespasses is unflinchingly honest, while being beautiful and devastating in equal measure. A young Irish Catholic woman falls in love with a much older, married, Protestant barrister. The novel is perfectly grounded in time and place, set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the mid-1970s. The love story is restrained and carefully rendered and not at all sentimental thanks to Louise Kennedy’s delicate portrayal of flawed and very humane characters. The storyline is taut, filled with tension and black humour, and not easy to forget.
My favourite NBG book of the year was Fatma Aydemir’s Dschinns. This bold, tragic and deeply moving family drama with powerful female characters set in Germany and Turkey stayed with me for a long time. With this second novel after Ellbogen (2017), Fatma Aydemir has proved herself to be at the forefront of young contemporary writers in Germany with a message to convey. With a great deal of empathy and intensity and a subtle touch, she shows a family in conflict, a family struggling to find its place in society, a family still struggling to overcome the burdens that migration brings with it even many years later.
Anne Vial, Literary Scout
Definitely my favourite book of this year so far, Dschinns is a contemporary epic family novel about a Turkish family settled in Germany. Father, mother and four siblings are unforgettable protagonists and tell the story in their very own unique voice – choral-style. A novel about love, life, family bonds, hope and hurt, migration and identity. Fatma Aydemir has made a huge step from her debut novel, Ellbogen. This is masterful storytelling: authentic, intimate, vulnerable, raw. It´s multi-layered and a genuine literary page-turner, reminding me of Franzen´s Corrections and Zadie Smith´s White Teeth.
Another family epic and favourite on my shelf! Unputdownable. Set on the German North-Sea island of Sylt – where the Sander family has thrived for the past 300 years – but major transformation (ecological, cultural, mass-tourism) is on the horizon… A chronicle of a vanishing world and disappearing culture. Storytelling at its best: powerful, evocative, deeply empathetic. It´s tinged with sadness but also wonderful, warm and humane humour. What Paolo Cognetti does for the mountain, Doerte Hansen does for the North Sea. Maybe she wanted to preserve for posterity the island´s landscape and wild nature and transmit her deep respect for its inhabitants. It worked, because it really got under my skin and will resonate long after.
Alexandra Wacheck, Austrian Cultural Forum, London
In Dave, Raphaela Edelbauer tells the story of Syz, a computer nerd who has made it his life goal to help a small team to equip the artificial intelligence DAVE with human consciousness. All of a sudden two events turn this mission upside down. Syz, whose entire life has revolved around programming and computer science, suddenly falls passionately in love with a young doctor. And if that wasn’t enough, DAVE is about to face a total breakdown. Syz now finds himself close to the powerhouse and begins to figure out whose interests DAVE actually serves. With the dystopic novel Dave, Raphaela Edelbauer not only succeeds in investigating highly relevant humanistic questions but also successfully connects philosophical discussions with political satire and irony.
Andrea Grill’s Cherubino tells the vivid story of the determined and self-confident Iris Schiffer. The 39-year-old singer is at the peak of her career when she makes her debut as Cherubino in Mozart’s opera ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ and subsequently gets offered a leading role at the Salzburg Festival. The success is followed by another surprise – an unexpected pregnancy with two potential fathers. Iris withholds this life-changing news from both of them as well as from her agent. She only takes what she needs from both men and is ready to expect the child with joy. A powerful, entertaining novel that not only allows a glimpse behind the scenes of the so-called director’s theatre but also tells the story of a woman who masters challenging moments in the most self-determined manner. An inspiration for all women who strive for more than society has in mind for them.
A huge thank you to those who shared their favourites with us, so that in turn we can share them with you.
We would like to thank all the people who worked with New Books in German this year: to the freelancers who wrote book recommendations, articles and who supported our social media work, to our interns, to those who sat on book juries, to our Steering Committee and funders, to our readers, to publishers, translators, editors and agents and all those who help shepherd excellent German-language literature into English.
We hope you enjoy a well-deserved break over the holiday period and wish you all the best for 2023!
Photo by Yuri Krupenin on Unsplash