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  • Writer's pictureAnna K. Schaffner

Failing on All Fronts

An emotional reckoning on holiday in Lanzarote By Anna Katharina Schaffner

European literature | Book Review | TLS

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“Man mastering mountain” is an old trope, usually deployed to demonstrate acts of perseverance – steely humans conquering nature and overcoming their physical limits. The bestselling German author Juli Zeh uses the ascent theme more creatively: In New Year (Neujahr, 2018), the main character, Henning, cycles up a steep mountain slope in Lanzarote, where he and his young family are taking a winter holiday. It is the first day of the New Year. “New year, new you” is a recurring refrain in Henning’s inner monologue.

Henning is suffering from severe panic attacks and struggling with his roles as a father and husband, while trying to keep on top of his workload. One main part of the novel’s action consists of Henning doggedly cycling uphill, reflecting on recent events. The night before, on New Year’s Eve, his wife Teresa danced intimately with an attractive Frenchman. Later, in bed, after Henning suffered a particularly terrifying attack, she reacted cruelly, accusing him of putting a strain on the family with his neuroses. Although Henning spends more time with his children than his wife does, they seem to prefer their mother, who is also the main bread-winner. Henning’s younger sister Lola, meanwhile, struggles to hold down jobs and relationships, and depends on her brother’s support, which causes further tension with Teresa. Henning feels like he is failing on all fronts.

While Henning’s body struggles upwards, his mind and spirit plunge into his psyche, allowing him to identify the source of his panic attacks. The series of flashbacks that return Henning to his early childhood are triggered by Proustian sensual impressions – the scent of a certain perfume from a passing car; the sight of a woman inside it who wears her blonde hair in a French braid, just like his mother used to do; a glimpse of a man with a hose, watering plants. Ill-prepared for his spontaneous excursion, Henning becomes increasingly dehydrated and hypoglycemic. He begins to hallucinate. The volcanic landscape reinforces – not very subtly – the theme of eruptions from the depths. We learn that the most recent eruption on the island took place more than 300 years ago, covering a third of Lanzarote in lava, ash and scoria, wiping out flora and fauna. “It left behind a kind of geological zero hour, dawn on earth. A mineralogical fresh start, faceless, historyless, mute.”

Eventually, Henning arrives at a house where the blonde woman who drove past him lives. She offers him food and drink, and he realizes that he has been there before. The house holds the key to his unravelling – and his return here is more than mere coincidence. Something had been calling Henning to Lanzarote, and something has also beckoned him up this particular mountain range. Something bad happened to Henning and his sister in this place when they were very young. Zeh’s description of a child in a state of terror, and of the toddler’s mind trying to make sense of it all, is both harrowing and gripping.

Zeh’s cinematic prose – in Alta L. Price’s elegant translation – is deceptively simple, and her minimalist premiss highly effective, but New Year is more than just a skilful psychological thriller. Beneath the tale of a modern father struggling with his masculinity and the imperative for high social performance is a deeper reflection on trauma and its tendency to continue to shape us throughout our lives.

Anna Katharina Schaffner is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent and Director of Perspectiva’s Emerge project. Her most recent book is The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten timeless truths, 2021

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