Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park (2008)
Trans. from the German, Tim Mohr
Europa Editions, 2010
I read the opening sentences of Broken Glass Park when I was walking home from the library. The temperature had warmed enough for me to have my mittens off, the sidewalks had melted and smoothed enough that I could walk without eyeing the ice underfoot, and here is what I read:
“Sometimes I think I’m the only one in our neighbourhood 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.”
There it is.
How could I not read on?
The library is only a couple of blocks away from home, so I hadn’t been long acquainted with Sascha by the time I was kicking off my winter boots and hanging up my coat, but I didn’t want to put our relationship on hold so soon. Cooking dinner was largely a one-handed accomplishment that night: stirring with one hand, holding my book with the other.
It’s not as though there is anything especially gripping at the beginning of the novel. Despite Sascha’s declarations, it was not a grisly murder scene that kept me turning the pages. Really, the appeal rested in the pull and credibility of Sascha’s voice.
Her fierceness. Her fragility. Alina Bronsky captures both qualities in her 17-year-old narrator and although you might not always like Sascha — you might not always like her choices, and you probably won’t like some of the things that happen (and have happened) to her — she is always believable.
And, often, compelling.
And, sometimes, captivating.
And, really, that’s all I need to keep me turning the pages.
But there is more. The novel relies heavily on dialogue and it is well-done, which builds credibility further. Fragments and half-thoughts. Slang and casual constructions.
This, in conjunction with the straightforward sentence structure, pushes the pacing of the novel. Although much of the action is internal — what Sascha is thinking, what she is remembering, what she is reviewing with recent events in mind, what she is planning — the style makes all of this seem very immediate and fresh.
The use of unadorned prose must be deliberate (and not simply a matter of translation). One of the characters is described as follows: “She smelled of soap and spoke in a chirpy voice using sentences of mostly monosyllabic words, words that popped out of her mouth like peas.” Perhaps this rare metaphor also hints at the author’s wider stylistic intent: shelling nouns and verbs and objects, each one pinging against the bowl as it’s released from the pod, pulling the reader directly along the trajectory. That’s rather how it feels.
The novel’s theme, however, does not afford the same kind of matter-of-fact-ness. Sascha is on her own when it comes to figuring out how to cope with the tragedy in her life, and there is no direct line to resolution.
At times she seems more preoccupied with the past, with trying to sort out what happened. For instance: “I wasn’t upset at Vadim but at my mother — a situation I found myself in a lot back then.” This is a particularly striking section of the novel, in which Sascha begins by poking at the situation from the outer edges, but she soon slips into a more visceral approach, until she is speaking directly to her mother, in the past. When the point-of-view shifts, the damaged bits of Sascha show through more sharply.
At times she seems overwhelmed by what awaits her in the future, by the various ways in which one moves forward (or doesn’t) in the wake of a tragedy. In observing two other characters who are also dealing with a loss, Sascha notes: “At first they seemed to be counting on waking up one day and finding everything back the way it had always been. Then at some point they resigned themselves to the fact that there was no way out of this nightmare.”
Sascha is striking out, unsure and restless. Meeting her reminded me of reading the opening pages of Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals on the streetcar one morning. In both cases, I wasn’t planning to settle into a read, just sample the first page, but Sascha in Broken Glass Park and Baby in Lullabies for Little Criminals are insistent heroines.
Phoebe Gloeckner’s Diary of a Teenage Girl (2002)
M.J. Hyland’s How the Light Gets In (2004)
Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals (2006)