Sascha Naimann has a lot on her plate. The big thing is her mother’s death at the hands of her stepfather, Vadim, a murder witnessed not only by Sascha herself but also by her little brother, Anton, and her little sister, Alissa. Anton, now a broken boy, quiet and weak and delicate, is also prone to alarming behavior: once Sascha discovered him dissecting the bloody carcass of a guinea pig. Alissa, named after the adventuress of Wonderland, seems like a normal, boisterous four year old. But there is other stuff, too, like living in the Emerald, a broken-down project on the outskirts of Frankfurt, the barely inhabitable home of Russian immigrants, who, unlike Sascha, hardly string together a good German sentence. Sascha wants nothing to do with either the drunken men or the long-suffering women of Emerald who pass their time whispering malicious stories about the night Vadim arrived at the apartment, where Sascha and her siblings still live, and their mother as well as her new boyfriend. Like, Sascha scorns the town’s sullenly dumb teenagers, boys and girls who booze and fight and have no aspirations beyond meaningless sex and expensive cars. Sascha herself has dreams, things she hopes to accomplish. In fact, she has two dreams. One is to write a book about her mother (tentative title: The Story of an Idiotic Redheaded Woman Who Would Still Be Alive If Only She Had Listened to Her Smart Oldest Daughter); the other is to kill Vadim. These things take time, of course, but Sascha has plenty of that.
One other thing Sascha has? She belongs to a long tradition of disaffected adolescent predecessors who have trod this road. For, peculiar particulars aside, Sascha is an immediately recognizable sort of heroine – a so-wise-it-hurts (-her) seventeen-year-old, an adolescent woman-child, a tender would-be toughie who isn’t quite sure she’ll make it. And Alina Bronsky’s debut novel, Broken Glass, is an immediately familiar example of the genre. I mean this as an unqualified compliment: recognizable stories resonate, telling us what we already know but always want to hear again, anyway. Bronsky – a pseudonym, assumed to protect the privacy of the author’s family—succeeds by tweaking the archetype just enough to make things interesting, rearranging the jigsaw pieces while somehow leaving the puzzle largely intact. In this, she is helped by her choice to make Sascha seventeen, an age that makes a dose of histrionics not only understandable but indispensable. Further, she casts Sascha’s lack of self-pity, her genuine attempt to understand herself and negotiate the cold, cruel world with some measure of grace, as heroism of a sort. Like Eminem, whose music she sings along to, Sascha transforms her anger, her fears, and her doubts into a narrative leavened with equal parts humor and pathos, rage and wistfulness; though she is perpetually tempted by a drive towards (self-) destruction, Sascha is tethered to life by her desire for vengeance and her need to prove herself. Out of these conflicting impulses, this mess of emotions, Bronsky creates something not unlike Eminem’s work at its best: catchy, entertaining, with glimmers of poetry and wisdom, simultaneously raw and polished.
Broken Glass Park focuses on a brief but intense period in Sascha’s life some years after the murder. Settled into a routine of sorts, she is jarred by an account of a reporter’s jailhouse visit with Vadim, described as a repentant shell of a man in a tiny cell, absorbed in writing a letter to his dead wife, memorializing her image in a series of sketches, and contemplating the past. Enraged, Sascha arrives at the newspaper’s headquarters, demanding to see the article’s author. Instead, she meets Volker Trebut, the newspaper’s editor, who offers to help Sascha any way he can. Sascha, drawn to Volker for reasons she is unable to articulate, takes him up on the offer, initiating a process of discovery. Caught between the desire to escape and the desire to connect, too strong to see how vulnerable she is, Sascha wants more and less at once. Like all (literary) immigrants, she wants simply to belong, to be like everyone else; like all (literary) adolescents, she wants to be special. Alina Bronsky – herself an immigrant who arrived in Germany at the age of thirteen, ultimately allows her to be both.