Swimming up from the depth
All Paula needs in life is her flat, a little money and her beloved brother Tim. When Tim dies in an accident, she plunges into a deep depression. It takes a road trip with a bereaved old man – along with a dog and a chicken – for her to resurface.
By Jana Schrader
At a maximum depth of 11,000 metres below sea level, the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean is the lowest point in the world’s oceans. Paula feels as though she’d sunk there, to the very bottom of the ocean floor, ever since her little brother Tim drowned in the sea two years ago. She loved Tim more than anyone else in the world, and he was the only person she had no problem being close to. So his death has plunged her into a deep depression. Paula’s therapist suggests she visit Tim's grave for the first time since the funeral. She doesn't want to run into anyone there, so she sets off to the cemetery at night. But it turns out she’s not alone: she meets an old man named Helmut there, who’s digging up the urn of his late girlfriend Helga. As they’re climbing back over the wall of the cemetery together, Helga's remains accidentally get spilled on Paula's clothes. So Helmut takes her with him to gather the ashes and scatter them in a faraway place that was important to the couple. Paula joins him, without further ado, on the ensuing road trip that ultimately brings both of the bereaved back to life.
Marianengraben, Jasmin Schreiber’s debut novel, is a book about life, death and grief. Both Paula and Helmut are mourning the loss of the most important person in the world to them and can’t find a way out of that grief alone, for neither of them has a support network: Paula won't let her parents get close to her, and Helmut has already suffered so many losses that he can’t shoulder any more.
COMING BACK TO LIFE … togetherAnd yet it’s precisely their shared suffering that enables this odd couple to give each other the support they need. They understand how unbearable the thought is that their loved one was thinking of them at the very last instant. They even understand why, the day that changed everything, they devour a whole jar of mayonnaise or paint a wall green – although they don't even like that colour. Over the course of their road trip, accompanied by Helmut's dog Judy and a chicken named Lutz, this mutual understanding enables them to pull each other out of a despair as deep as the Mariana Trench.
Paula treats her dead brother to a running commentary on this road trip, addressing him in the second person singular, which gives the narrative an added personal quality and immediacy. Schreiber is at her best in the passages about grief. The graph of Paula's pulse on the day she received the news of her brother’s death is described as that of a heart breaking – which is quite moving, as are the protagonists’ conversations about their dear departed. Schreiber, who happens to be a trained biologist, knows a lot about death: she photographs infants who die before, during or shortly after birth and also serves as a volunteer caregiver for end-of-life patients. These activities have sensitized her and afforded her a gentle means of access to the difficult subject of death.
SAD but FUNNY, TOOMarianengraben isn’t just a sad novel, however: it’s full of quirky and funny moments – and this is where the narrative goes awry. All too often the author attempts to interleave some unusual occurrence or off-the-wall element while disregarding the characters' motives. Why, for example, would Paula suddenly pick up a wounded chicken in the road and call it Lutz? The author would have been well advised to exercise a bit more restraint there.
On the other hand, this trained biologist does a good job of tying Paula and Tim's passion for the sea into their close rapport as siblings, as well as working observations of natural phenomena into Paula's reflections. Over each chapter is a header indicating the depth in metres, and that number gradually decreases to zero in the end.
It’s not easy to write about dying and loss. Both are high subjective experiences that everyone copes with differently. And the way back to life is equally subjective. Marianengraben shows two such ways out of an infinite number of possibilities. Jasmin Schreiber's approach is nothing new, but her casual, straightforward prose makes for smooth, pleasurable and entertaining reading. It’s a pleasant and endearing debut novel.