Gröschner’s extensive oeuvre demonstrates a rare skill for succinctly evoking history through everyday occurrences and individual memories, replete with telling details and authentic voices. The Witches’ Sabbath is her eagerly awaited second novel.
The book documents twenty-four hours in the life of Berlin on Walpurgis Night (the Witches’ Sabbath featured in Goethe’s Faust). Each of the chapters is a story in miniature; they follow a diverse set of characters, revisiting them at different points of the day, while their paths cross at various points. These precisely-narrated vignettes slowly interweave and reveal the connections and coincidences which constitute life in the city. A woman discovers that she is pregnant as the result of an affair; a young boy runs away from his alcoholic mother; a woman is found with total amnesia and signs of having been attacked; an old lady moves out of the house that holds all her memories. Towards midnight, the strands begin to tie up: the woman with amnesia turns out to be the barmaid attacked in one of the earliest chapters; and a woman who has been stealing ID cards to hide her own identity encounters the woman whose identity she currently possesses.
But this isn’t simply a social history, nor only focused on everyday minutiae: there is the touch of the surreal in the man who commits suicide by cryogenically freezing himself; in the scurrilous descriptions of a young girl working for a chat-line which specialises in Turkish women; and in a satire on apparently socially-aware performance art. Suspense is built up through the fragmentary structure which creates tension as we switch from one strand to the next, not knowing what is going to happen. Gröschner’s writing style is based on careful observation, reported in a dry, witty way and full of never-superfluous detail. The sheer range of characters is striking: the sixty-year old vagrant with dreadlocks and a murky past in the GDR; the Romanian weightlifter without proper papers; the three tough-talking, wise-cracking old biddies with their dog Stalin; and the marauding trio of young Turkish-Kurdish schoolgirls who go by the misleadingly sweet nicknames of Sugar, Cakes and Candy.
Gröschner again successfully captures the diversity, chaos, history and low-key anarchy of life in contemporary Berlin. The Witches’ Sabbath stands out as a novel of kaleidoscopic range and epic scope.
All recommendations from Spring 2012