Franziska Gerstenberg’s second novel is narrated from four different perspectives, focusing on a family crisis that plays out against the wider socio-historical backdrop of the last twenty years.
The novel begins in 2000, with Charlotte’s story. Living alone in Berlin, she dreams of married bliss and motherhood, and Simon, whom she meets by chance, seems to fit the bill. Just as their relationship is taking off, her parents are killed in a car crash – on 11 September 2001 – and the small advertising agency she works for goes under in the difficult economic climate. Charlotte then persuades Simon – against his will – to move to her parents’ former home in Dresden and start a family.
The second part of the book is written from the perspective of their daughter Greta, nine years on, when the marriage has gone sour and there are constant rows. The third section of the narrative – another nine years on – is written from the viewpoint of their teenage son, Karl. Physically and emotionally stunted by the family drama, he begins to stalk his outwardly much more successful sister, setting up a camera in her room and hacking into her social media account. He discovers that she and her fellow climate campaigners are planning ‘something big’ at an election rally. After doing his own research into global warming, Karl decides that peaceful protest is not enough, and starts building a bomb.
The final section – set three months later – gives Simon’s perspective. We learn that Greta is dead, having fallen from a roof after getting high on drugs and alcohol at a party. Simon takes his anger out on Karl, whom Charlotte sends to Berlin to take up an internship with her ex-employer. Karl matures and makes a new life for himself, while Charlotte and Simon face up to their mistakes and decide to make the best of their life together.
Highly readable and cleverly constructed, the story is gripping and engages the reader’s emotions throughout, with a moving ending that offers some comfort despite the tragic events that unfold. The language is notable for its clarity, simplicity and precise observation and there are touches of dry humour. But there is pathos, too, particularly in the scenes between Karl and his father, and in Simon’s closing reflections. The wider themes that the novel raises – intergenerational tension, familial guilt, the need for tolerance and understanding – are universal, and the topical references, including 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, and global warming, paint a picture of the twenty-first century that an international readership will readily recognise.