Reviewed by Catherine Bailey for The Three Percent
“Sometimes I think I’m the only one in our neighborhood with any worthwhile dreams. 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.”
So begins Broken Glass Park, the achingly beautiful debut novel by Russian-born Alina Bronsky (a pseudonym). This casual treatment of deeply harbored aggressive fantasies is characteristic of Bronsky’s central protagonist, seventeen-year-old Sascha Naimann, whose thinly veneered emotional turbulence reflects the collective restlessness of the inner city housing “projects” in which the story unfolds, and in which Bronsky herself lived for a time. Like Sascha, Bronsky emigrated from Russia to Germany during early adolescence and experienced the life ascribed to those residing in a small, peripheral community suffering from economic disadvantage, cultural displacement, and linguistic marginalization. But while Bronsky’s family found its way out of the projects, the Naimanns remain, resulting in tragic consequences that span generations.
The source of Sascha’s venomous hatred for Vadim is swiftly revealed: an abusive figure from the start, he murdered her mother one night in a fit of rage before the very eyes of Sascha and her two younger half-siblings. The novel opens approximately two years after the slaughter, and though Vadim is behind bars for his insidious crime, the horror of this loss is no less fresh—nor forgivable—in the mind of the protagonist, who also serves as the narrator. As Sascha’s inner monologue winds its way, somewhat disjointedly, through reminiscences of the days before her mother’s death, the profound intellectual rigor and thoughtful, psychological gravity to which the young woman was predisposed become apparent; yet, simultaneously, so does the fact that she has since devoted these energies toward the singular objective of her stepfather’s demise, for which she waits with an infinite and calculating patience. Sascha’s roiling detestation of Vadim and consequently, of all men, is kept in check only by the layer of pointed apathy with which she meets the rest of life. At one point Sascha muses, “A Russian children’s poem comes to mind: ‘My nerves are made of steel, no, actually, I don’t have any at all.’ It’s like it was written about me. I don’t have any.” She is as a walking corpse, disdainful of the petty tribulations saddling the people in her life, kept alive only by her ardent desire to bring death to her stepfather and a symbolic resurrection to her mother through the immortal act of writing.
And yet, as the text carries on, we see that this is not so. Unbeknownst to Sascha, she is, in fact, a caring sister, a dedicated (if outwardly exasperated) friend, and a wellspring of sensual emotion. Through a fortuitously placed newspaper article, Sascha encounters Volker Trebur, the mysteriously alluring city section editor, and his son Felix. A complicated web of relationships develops between the three, revealing nuances of Sascha’s tenderness even as it demonstrates the extent of the damage done to her ability to give and receive love by the trauma she has sustained. Ultimately a character study, Broken Glass Park offers a poignant and telling portrait of the human condition through Sascha: she is furious, she is helpless; at times she is downright ugly, yet her compassion delivers others from pain. She is broken, and in struggling to repair herself, she often does nothing but widen the cracks in the pane of her fragile existence. Bronsky’s gift for subtle characterization makes Sascha a sympathetic, frustrating, and compellingly imperfect heroine.
Interestingly, Broken Glass Park is not composed of individual chapters; rather, it flows continuously. This stylistic choice greatly enhances the content of the novel, given that Sascha’s thoughts and perceptions are expressed in the present tense. The uninterrupted flow of the text allows for a seamless blending of the protagonist’s immediate moods and sensations with her tangential, introspective narration of actual past and imagined future. Reading Broken Glass Park is, at times, much like listening to someone think aloud—the free association so structurally important to the character’s voice leads to revelations far more significant than any dialogue would provide (though on the occasions in which it arises, Bronsky’s dialogue is solid). Moreover, the unceasing progression of the plot as told through Sascha’s eyes lends thrust to the ubiquitous sense of agitated ennui that permeates her fractured urban community. Its inhabitants are desperate for their various reasons, but escape seems distant if plausible at all. The droning of the narrator’s voice invites readers to participate, if only vicariously, in the relentless aimlessness of a journey devoid of destination—a phenomenon felt on a societal level by the impoverished immigrants of the projects, and on a personal level by Sascha’s cavernous depression. The text does not blink, so to speak, and the device is potent. There is no relieving respite from the imposition of the next heavy thought, the next unpleasant memory. There is nothing to do, in light of Sascha’s tragedy, and in light of the many unsung episodes of the troubled population around her, but to continue.
Among the novel’s most engaging themes is Sascha’s relationship with the polarities of her own emotional development. Though she condemns her mother’s gentle nature as the source of her downfall and swears to despise all men, Sascha finds herself drawn into various avenues of romantic and sexual experimentation. In her approach to these predominantly bumbling attempts at connection, she is at once mature beyond her years and alarmingly naïve. Likewise, her efforts to harden her heart for the task of exacting revenge on Vadim are counteracted by her role as a nurturing maternal figure to her young siblings and even her legal guardian, who is in many ways a child. By sending Sascha swinging, pendulum-like, between the forces of self-desecration and self-preservation, Bronsky implies that there are no absolute paths to personal fulfillment. In illustrating this tension throughout the entirety of her work, the author has given us a noteworthy body of ideas to contemplate long after the final page is turned.
Broken Glass Park, released by Europa Editions and translated by Tim Mohr, is a captivating and unsettling read. It was recently nominated for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, a distinguished award in Europe, and with its delicate treatment of the existential complexities surrounding the perpetuation of violence and the salvation of acceptance, it is likely to garner much more critical acclaim.