The Pollen Room is a modern classic.  Originally published in 1997, the English translation by Michael Hofmann appeared just one year later.  It is heralded as the best selling Swiss debut of all time.

it starts at a time when Lucy has abandoned her family and left her 6-year old daughter Jo with her father.  Jo narrates this early history with characteristic childlike stoicism.  Her father spends his days printing novels that no-one buys, and his nights truck-driving to make ends meet.  Jo is left in the house alone …. and afraid.  But she never lets her father know.

12 years later she goes to live with her mother, just before the latter’s husband is killed in a car accident.  Lucy becomes catatonic with grief, locking herself into the pollen room of the title. (A room which she has strewn with pollen. Don’t ask me why.) Lucy, despite the neglect of her childhood, still feels for her mother, prevents her from starving herself to death, and helps her recover.  Not that she receives any thanks for it.  Her mother finds herself a wealthy new lover and runs off with him at the first opportunity.

Once again Jo is left to her own devices, she attempts to make friendships, but people – even those of her own generation – continually let her down.  Their needs always come first. Jo is someone to be picked up and dropped when she is no longer convenient. Of course, Jo’s passivity doesn’t help.  But her need for love makes her put up with so much nonsense.  It’s an ever-repeating cycle, and not one I’m confident she has the wherewithall to break.  

Jo’s 1st-person narration is matter-of-fact, completely lacking in self-pity.   Yet at the same time it is concise and lyrical.  She has a beauty of thought that contrasts sharply with the ugliness of her existence, and she conveys the hurt that other people’s thoughtlessness causes her through the use of well-chosen images: Lucy’s callousness is embodied in a pair of blue ballet shoes, which she bought for her daughter, but then couldn’t be bothered sending; Jo’s fragility is reflected in the butterflies, which having been rescued once, insist on flying back into a waterfall to their deaths.

That’s not an image that bodes well for the girl, is it?  Jo is one troubled teenager whose problems look set to continue past the final page.

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