There are many reasons why teenaged Sascha Naimann is as tough as nails. She is a survivor of abuse, lives in the projects in Germany (in an urban ghetto called the Emerald) and is orphaned after her stepfather kills her mother (and her mother’s boyfriend) in a fit of jealous rage.
Despite the severe circumstances she is thrown into—or maybe because of them—Sascha does not like to be pitied. Yes, she occasionally wonders how life would have turned out if she lived in a different place, was a native German (she is a Russian immigrant) or grew up in a “normal” family. But what motivates Sascha every day is a furious and relentless drive to get even with Vadim—the step-dad who took away her dear mother. The quote above is the first few lines from the book and could qualify as one of the best openers I have read in recent memory.
As the novel opens, Sascha is just learning to navigate life as a precocious, recently orphaned teenager. She is largely responsible for the well being of her much younger stepsister, Alissa, and stepbrother, Anton. After the murders, the state steps in and a distant cousin of Vadim’s from Russia, Maria, comes in to take care of the kids. While Maria—who used to work in a factory cafeteria in Novosibirsk—fixes meals for the fractured family, it becomes obvious very rapidly that she is not good for much else. Maria’s isolation from everyday German society makes her as dependent on Sascha as little Anton and Alissa.
One day, Sascha spots a newspaper article about Vadim written in what she perceives to be a flattering light. To Sascha, Vadim is a monster—that the paper instead portrays him as a human being with faults, drives her crazy. Furious, she makes her way to the paper’s headquarters in Frankfurt. Here she meets both the article’s author and Volker Trebur, the editor of the city section in which the article was published. Volker feels personally responsible for Sascha’s trauma and invites her to ask any favor of him that will absolve him of his perceived guilt.
Soon Sascha cashes in on this opportunity and makes herself a guest at the Volker residence. She takes a break from her siblings, from Maria, from the ghetto where she lives, and gets a taste of what her life could have been like. She even strikes a tentative relationship with Volker’s teenaged son.
Of course this side trip is only a fairy tale and real life must come knocking soon enough. Eventually Sascha returns to her home in the projects and the gritty realities of life in the Emerald. The broken glass park in the title is a particularly rough area in the neighborhood where Sascha comes to an awakening of sorts about the life that lies ahead of her.
Alina Bronsky, the book’s young and talented author, has deservedly garnered all kinds of acclaim for this debut. Incidentally the author name is a pseudonym. Sascha’s voice is perfect and the reader falls in love with her no-nonsense and intelligent outlook on life. Bronsky also does a wonderful job of portraying the other women in the book—Sascha’s kind yet abused mother and even Maria, the cousin.
The book is not without its problems however. A particularly important character in the story, Volker Trebur, is extremely unconvincingly drawn. Both his character and his motivations are difficult to fathom. It’s hard to imagine a grown man with a teenaged son suddenly taking in a troubled teenager just because she thinks an article approved by him might be damning. In fact, the reader might even find Sascha’s flight to the Trebur household difficult to understand. It’s almost as if Bronsky wanted to take this story somewhere else and then in the end, couldn’t quite make it all work.
Overall, Broken Glass Park introduces us to a strong and capable voice. Considering this is Bronsky’s debut it’s an extremely laudable effort. Sascha will endear herself to readers and her character is a welcome addition to fiction.
It comes as no surprise that Sascha’s favorite artist is Eminem. “He’s the only artist I have been able to listen to in the last two years—for hours on end,” she says. “And the only one I really believe, the only one who has lived what he describes in his music.” So when Eminem sings: “My life is full of empty promises and broken dreams,” Sascha can empathize. Her life at Emerald is only slightly better, she knows, than what her favorite singer has lived and endured.
Review by Poornima Apte, translated by Tim Mohr