Translated from German by Alta L Price
*** Review contains mild spoilers ***
In the normal before the current one (you know what I mean), I used to flee the Scottish winter and head off to the Canaries. So I took a vicarious trip this winter to Lanzarote with Henning and his family. A trip down memory lane, if you will. Though thankfully my memories are not dark and dangerous as Henning’s.
There are undercurrents of dissatisfaction in Henning’s marriage. Money pressures despite which Henning books the trip. Yet at the restaurant on New Year’s Eve, Theresa spends a lot of time flirting with another man. It is enough to trigger one of Henning’s panic attacks. With Theresa the main breadwinner, and he the main child carer, he feels he is beginning to lose himself.
On New Year’s Day, he decides to go cycling. New Year, New Henning and all that. Although this was not his original intention, he ends up riding up to Femes from Playa Blanca – an elevation of some 330 m over 5.5 km. (https://www.climbbybike.com/profile/femes-lanzarote/14243) His lack of preparation almost kills him – he has set off without water or money. Fortunately (or maybe not) he stumbles across an inhabited villa with a friendly owner, willing to supply hydration and respite. However, a windowless wall covered in a sea of spiders makes him (and me) uneasy, while peering into the depths of an aljibe (an underground cistern used to collect rainwater) triggers a flashback …
The cycle ride to Fermes is a marvellous set piece, full of knowledge regarding the physical challenge that Henning is undertaking, and the technical expertise required to accomplish it. Yet it is surpassed by the set piece that takes up almost all of the second half of the novel – the suppressed memory of a holiday gone badly wrong and which almost cost Henning his life.
For Henning has stayed at that villa before – as a small child aged 4 and his younger sister Ines, aged 2. One morning they wake up to find their parents gone and Henning is forced to become the carer and protector of his sister – at least until such time as a adult reappears. The brave little boy does his best, but how easily things can go wrong, and the tension in these pages is palpable – despite us knowing that Henning makes it to adulthood.
So traumatic for Henning and his sister are these events, that they suppress all memory. Yet the impact is profound because the big brother never relinquishes the role of being parent to his sister. Which is another source of tension in his marriage to Theresa. The question is whether this confrontation with his past will release him, and the future will see a truly new Henning.
For all the darkness at the heart of the story, New Year is a quick, entertaining read, steeped in thought-provoking psychology. To keep them away from the aljibe, young Henning and Ines are told that a monster lurks in its depths. Symbolically that turns out to be true, and it’s not until he confronts it that Henning can move on. I suspect the monster is PTSD, but I need to ask David, to whom Zeh dedicates the novel, because he is the one “who knows what this is all about”.