Sarah Stricker’s exceptional debut novel confronts the thorny issue of German-Jewish relations head-on and without any of the usual clichés. Stricker’s journalistic acumen and unswerving comic instinct combine to make Five Kopeks an unflinching and drop-dead funny family drama.
Anna, the narrator of Five Kopeks, recalls her life story in a series of flashbacks. Her tyrannical grandfather’s obsession with his time as a PoW in a Soviet camp and his brutal attempts to instil a sense of duty into his ugly daughter do not sound like the ingredients of a funny novel, and yet Stricker’s gift for storytelling has the reader in stitches. The grandfather abhors superficiality and encourages his daughter’s assiduity in school while discouraging any attempts she makes to look nice. His wife surreptitiously tries to rouge her daughter’s cheeks or to give her nicer glasses but her husband always seems to have the upper hand. The ugly daughter turns out to be a child prodigy but is emotionally immature long after she becomes an adult. There are excruciatingly funny passages recounting the daughter’s first late-night disco and pubescent experiences.
There is a bracing clarity in Stricker’s language as she describes how Anna’s mother denies her feelings for the man who becomes her husband and stumbles into an amour fou for the chauvinistic Ukrainian-Jewish Alex. On one occasion she spends a night in a hotel with Alex behind her husband’s back. Nothing goes to plan and the episode is full of dramatic tension. The next morning she muses aloud about what they might call a child if they got married, and is taken aback by Alex’s revelation that, despite being a non-believer, he would never marry her because she is not a Jew. The ensuing discussion ranges across the barriers which prevent a converted Jew from being accepted as Jewish, and what it means to be Jewish in contemporary Germany.
Nothing feels hackneyed or predictable about this novel: not the plot, not the language and not the sex scenes that are by turns hilarious and erotic. Anna’s narration is an homage to her shrill, unconventional mother who knows less than her daughter about love and the way the world works. This is an edgy, clever work of fiction that is tragicomic in the best sense.