Thursday, 24 August 2017

Dance By The Canal by Kerstin Hensel

translated by Jen Calleja

review by Maryom

Gabriela has no place to live, no job, no friends or family who could help her, but for now she's found a snug spot under a bridge by the canal, and a stash of paper on which to write her life story. Born in the East German town of Leibnitz, the daughter of a respected surgeon, Gabriela's early life should have been an easy one of privilege but her parents seem remote and unloving, wanting an ideal child with talents to brag about, and at school she manages to make the 'wrong' sort of friends, irritating her parents even more.
Her father meanwhile is becoming increasingly outspoken about the Communist regime, her mother takes a younger lover, and by the time Gabriela is a teenager their comfortable villa has been exchanged for a tiny flat, and things are definitely on a downward slide ...
Then the Berlin Wall falls, and Gabriela hopes for better things, but has she by then become too much of a misfit to ever fit in?

From the point when Gabriela is homeless, sitting under the canal bridge and beginning to tell of her life, the story moves in two timelines - starting with her childhood one follows her troubles trying to fit in with what first her parents, and then the state, expect of her; the other begins at that moment sitting under the bridge, as she reflects on the past and is 'discovered' by a women's magazine and courted as an 'authentic' voice of the homeless. 
A square peg in a round hole is one way, perhaps slightly lazy way, of describing Gabriela - she never seems to quite understand what people expect of her, therefore can't play by their rules, and make a success of things. She's rootless and homeless long before she's without a roof over her head - her parents are distant and more concerned with their own lives that her well-being - and the only constant in her life is the canal - from childhood when she spent her happiest times playing and dancing there with her 'unsuitable' friend, to the shelter it offers her now.

It's a story which captures the readers attention and imagination. How could someone born into a position of security and respectability end up living homeless? Is it a slip anyone could make, or just Gabriela's fault? But, as I neared the end, I began to have second thoughts about Gabriela in her capacity as narrator. A word here, a sentence there, made me begin to think she wasn't maybe quite as she'd presented herself, but creating a persona to fit the expectations of the magazine editors. I read the relevant passages again, and still wasn't sure if I'd imagined it and was reading in something that wasn't there. It's one occasion when I've wondered if the translation of a Peirene novella didn't quite capture the feeling of the original. I definitely feel I need to re-read this book, but meanwhile if anyone has read Dance by the Canal, what did you think?
Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Peirene Press
Genre - Adult Literary Translated Fiction

1 comment:

  1. Such an interesting review! I did struggle with the translation but perhaps, to some extent, Gabriela was an unreliable narrator... but as you highlight, it was hard to pinpoint why (for me) it just didn't quite gel.....