In some ways, Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park is exactly what one might expect from a debut novel whose narrator and heroine is a seventeen-year-old girl. The book is fast-paced, engaging, and not exactly challenging in terms of form or style. What makes the book worth reading, however, is the fact that the story is a unique one, and one which is told with great simplicity, straightforwardness, and ease. Sascha Naimann is a flawed yet very lovable heroine, and it is very difficult not to be drawn in by her voice and story.
The story takes place in Frankfurt, where Sascha lives with her younger half-brother and half-sister in a housing project filled mostly with Russian immigrants like themselves. The fact that many of the characters are meant to be speaking Russian and the interactions between newly-learned German and the mother tongue provide an interesting challenge for a translator, and one that Tim Mohr dealt with smoothly. His pop-culture background is also very well suited to the diction of a teenager, and the switches between colloquialism and precocious articulateness are navigated with ease.
The motivating trauma of the story is the murder of Marina, the children’s beautiful, warm-hearted mother by Sascha’s stepfather Vadim. He is now in prison, leaving the three to be cared for by his cousin Maria, who has come from Novosibirsk to take care of the “poor little orphans”—a phrase Sascha dislikes and prohibits her from using. Though Maria is the nominal matron of the makeshift family, Sascha sees herself as the true caretaker of her brother and sister, and her strong will and intelligence indeed give her much power and control.
“Sometimes I think I’m the only one in our neighborhood with any worthwhile dreams,” the book begins. “I have two, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of either one. I want to kill Vadim. And I want to write a book about my mother.” These lines encapsulate Sascha’s two guiding impulses, which are the fault lines of her personality. The murder of her mother has, on the one hand, made her hard, ruthless, and wily. She is determined to learn from what she sees as the naivete that led to her mother’s death, and she is proud of her fearlessness and lack of sentimentality. On the other hand, Sascha’s love for her mother runs deep and is manifested by the care and concern that she lavishes on her siblings. This subconscious, often repressed capacity for sympathy and love is the legacy of her mother which finally leads to Sascha’s growth and ultimately frees her.
Broken Glass Park is in fact built on these tensions between competing ideas or impulses. Although Sascha’s mother never appears in the book, her complex and believable personality is strongly felt. Like Sascha, she has both an unquenchable strength and independence and a soft-heartedness and trust out of step with the harshness of reality. Sascha often speaks to her mother in her mind, berating her for not standing up for herself:
What do you do . . . You don’t say a thing. You let yourself get pushed away and smile, lost in your own thoughts. With the patience of an angel, you let yourself get walked all over—you, of all people. You, a person who takes such pride in being courteous to everyone around you . . . I know it’s not because you’re afraid of him. You don’t even see him anymore, you don’t hear him. You couldn’t care less about him—and for that you feel bad. Despite what he’s like.
Sascha repeatedly refers to her mother as “naive,” even “dumb,” but the picture that emerges in Sascha’s descriptions is a much more nuanced one. Far from being a weak woman, Marina shows a subtle but fierce feminism that makes the cautionary tale of her death even more chilling. The dynamic that Sascha describes between Vadim and her mother is an extreme portrayal of traditional gender relations, and it is clear that it was in fact Marina’s strength and confidence that so provoked her husband’s rage, rather than her weakness that allowed it. The lesson that Sascha takes from her mother’s death—that strength to the detriment of kindness is the only way to protect oneself—is therefore misguided. Sascha’s growth throughout the book is essentially the struggle to unite the opposing tendencies and find a middle path between strength and vulnerability, vengeance and love, maturity and innocence.
Sascha’s belief that she must be fearless and strong makes her heartbreakingly cruel at times and keeps the book from becoming too syrupy. What she sees as realism causes her to see the world in very black and white terms and to intimidate those around her. “I hate men,” she states early on, and this conviction leads to a confrontation with Maria in which Sascha is completely unable to sympathize with her guardian’s very human loneliness. Maria and her would-be gentleman friend all but cower before her, and, when a hint of pity arises, she squashes it:
“It’s not right, acting this way, Sascha,” he says, lifting his wrinkled face toward me.
“What’s not right?” I ask loudly. It comes out that way because my anger is being tempered by a gnawing, sudden sense of pity. Just what I need, I think. Her genes. At exactly the wrong moment.
As in several other episodes, Sascha’s heartlessness wreaks havoc in the lives of those around her. It is this inability to see or care how her actions affect others that we see Sascha beginning to recognize and change by the end of the book.
Sascha’s vacillation between extreme maturity and surprisingly childish immaturity is one of the most compelling aspects of the book. This tension is particularly evident in Sascha’s interactions with Volker Trebur, a newspaper edition with an ambiguous former relationship with Marina, who ends up becoming a friend and protector to Sascha. When Sascha asks Volker for a place to stay, her immaturity becomes quite clear, despite the pretensions of her adult manner. Her speech to him is sophisticated and polite, yet when she arrives at his house, she has no qualms about any kind of imposition. She seems in fact totally unaware that she might be testing the generosity of her benefactor. The reader is suddenly reminded that she is a child who longs, for once, to be cared for, to have a break from her roles as tyrant, surrogate mother, and adult, when she asks Volker to pick out a book for her to read and to bring it to her room. This contrast is striking, and it is Bronsky’s forte. Sascha is a lovable character not only for her intelligence and zesty one-liners, but because we are watching her journey to become an adult, not just to have the facade of one.
One of the other strengths of Broken Glass Park is its simplicity and small scope. Unlike its heroine, it has no pretensions to sophistication, but it is nonetheless anything but simplistic. It is neither a weighty work of literature, nor, as some have suggested, a social commentary on contemporary German immigrant life. Rather, it is old-fashioned storytelling at its best, and as such it succeeds well and enjoyably. The narrative is not broken into chapters or divisions, a form which suits it well and which serves both to emphasize its intimacy and to keep the pace brisk. The book would be well categorized as an “Erzählung” (literally translatable as “story”), that imprecise German designation for works that fall somewhere in between the realms of short story, novel and novella, but which have an unmistakable self-contained quality.
Bronsky’s commitment to telling a compelling story however also contributes to one of the book’s major weaknesses. Most of the realism of the writing seems to be focused on creating a believable character in Sascha, and some of the plot points seem a stretch at times, particularly Sascha’s relationship with Volker. The condensed quality of the book contributes to this feeling: as the plot rolls along briskly, events pile up on each other with little room for the reader to breathe. This heightens the drama, but also detracts from the plausibility of the book.
On the other hand, Broken Glass Park is, at the end of the day, a good story. It is an enjoyable read, and although perhaps unduly action-packed, it avoids any major catharsis at the end which would cause the book to feel too much like a typical Bildungsroman. At the end of the book Sascha is still a far from perfect character, and although she achieves some personal sense of freedom, one is still left wondering whether she has really considered the results of her choices. Broken Glass Park may not be a weighty work, but Bronsky’s writing and psychological understanding are persuasive and engaging. Sascha is an unusual character and her story a truly unique one that deserves to be read.