Thursday 12 October 2017

Book review : Dance By The Canal - Kerstin Hensel

Pereine Press have made a name for themselves for publishing foreign literature, translated into English, for a discerning audience who want to discover quirky, little known and often surprising novellas that frequently transport the reader to another place, time or culture. The Times Literary Supplement defined them as "two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting : literary cinema for those fatigued by film", which is actually a very apt description.

Dance By The Canal by Kerstin Hensel is n° 24 in the series, the third title in the theme "East and West : Looking Both Ways". It focuses on Gabriela von Haslau, daughter of a talented surgeon and a respected society hostess. She could have had a great life, but she lives in communist East Germany and she has no desire to conform to the patriarchal structures of a society she doesn't believe in. It's a dangerous place for square pegs who can't (or won't) fit into round holes - friends and family members mysteriously disappear, Gabriela is mocked at school for her bourgeois name and forced into manual labour as a mechanical engineer (which she immediately proves that she is definitely not suited to) and she ultimately finds that becoming homeless is her only way to find a new beginning. Writing her past on scraps of paper, she starts to forge a new identity (or at least come to terms with her old one) amongst the down-and-outs under the bridges of Leibnitz. Then The Wall comes tumbling down, potentially opening up a whole new world and a whole new life.

Sometimes, translated fiction flows so smoothly that you totally forget that it wasn't in English to begin with. Other times, as here, it seems slightly more stilted and retains a certain foreign quality. Possibly that is the way the original text was written in its native German or perhaps the slightly clumsy prose is designed to evoke a greater sense of disarray and awkwardness in the repressive communist society.

Gabriela is an interesting character but I didn't really feel that I completely understood her. The book is told in a series of anecdotes from the past and present but I would have liked to have delved further into her psyche, examining her feelings and sense of who she was, is and wants to be. As always with Pereine, it's a book to make you think : it's an interesting idea that all those nameless, almost faceless, homeless people that you walk past in the street could have such a fascinating and elaborate personal history to share.

star rating : 4/5

  • Paperback
  • Publisher: Peirene Press Ltd (3 July 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 190867038X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1908670380

Disclosure : I received a review copy of the book.

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