City of Smoke is a rollicking, magical-realist tale – the story of three generations of women who pass down calamity to their daughters.
Svealena Kutschke has a magisterial storytelling talent and City of Smoke can justifiably claim to be a modern Buddenbrooks, with many parallels between her novel and Thomas Mann’s classic. Both books are set in the ancient, picturesque city of Lübeck, a city that throws itself at Hitler’s feet and is plagued fifty years later by neo-Nazi anti-Semitic violence.
In 1990s Lübeck, young Jessie Mertens seeks release from the tragedy that has weighed upon her family since the birth of her grandmother, Lucie. The daughter of the painter Michel Mahler, Lucie is born in 1908 in the most extraordinary circumstances, after her heavily pregnant mother commits suicide by throwing herself into the River Trave. Following her miraculous survival, Lucie grows up in extreme poverty in the backyards of Lübeck. She finds work in the city theatre and falls in love with Christoph. Hitler’s rise to power places a great strain on their love because Christoph – who was previously unpolitical and only interested in art – becomes an ardent Nazi. The incorruptible and forthright Lucie is horrified. But by then, her advanced addiction to morphine leaves her unable to deal with the change. Lucie and Christoph’s daughter, who will become Jessie’s mother, is born during the war. A catastrophe is inevitable: a catastrophe that casts a long shadow down to the third generation, as far as Jessie.
In true magical-realist fashion, vanishing into thin air seems to afflict this family like a curse. Their fate is inextricably interwoven with the River Trave and the uncanny circumstances of Lucie’s birth. It is Jessie who finally breaks through this vicious circle by revealing that birth story as a lie. The real catastrophe haunting the family is a quite different one.
Impossible to put down, City of Smoke has an ambitious, sweeping scope within which its strong female characters are brought to life in all their luminous, tortured glory. The novel raises eternal questions of good and evil as its majestic focus shifts effortlessly between past and present. Kutschke poses the question of individual responsibility, in particular during the Third Reich. City of Smoke deals with how guilt, injury and responsibility are handed down through generations, and how history is inescapable: both in the microcosm of a family and in the macrocosm of society.