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May 2021
Anke Stelling: Higher Ground

Book Cover: Higher Ground
© Scribe Publications

If you find yourself drawn to A. L. Kennedy’s rich but uncomfortable storytelling, you might enjoy Anke Stelling’s Higher Ground.

The wonderful Ali Smith once described fellow Scottish author A. L. Kennedy as “the laureate of good hurt”. Her characters are painfully believable, making the wrong decisions for the right reasons, or even for the wrong reasons but with the right motivation. “No!” we sometimes want to call out as readers. “Don’t do that! You’ll just get hurt!” But precisely because of this, the stories she tells and the worlds she creates are compelling, sometimes funny and always insightful.

I kept coming back to Kennedy while reading Anke Stelling’s novel Higher Ground (tr. Lucy Jones), the first of the award-winning author’s novels to be translated into English. It’s a fantastic translation, capturing Stelling’s candid, often ironic tone, as well as the narrator’s propensity for rhyme and wordplay. The book is very much embedded in the social landscape it’s set in, and so Jones’ decision to keep a flavour of the original German works particularly well: “Bähmullig, for example. Do you know what a Bähmull is? A tetchy – or just pretty annoying – fourteen-year-old, but possibly even forty-year-old, who turns up her nose at everything. A perfectionist who quickly gets in a huff. In a word, a fusspot.”

Resi, the novel’s narrator, is a forty-something-year-old author, bringing up a family of four kids on a precarious income. Over the years her books and articles have increasingly challenged the comfortably middle-class friends who happen to control her lease – with the result that, at the start of the novel, this lease is unexpectedly cancelled. Resi reacts with the notes which make up the novel. Spirited, often frustrated, and sometimes ferocious, the text is written for Resi’s fourteen-year-old daughter Bea – an attempt to explain everything to her. “Everything” in this case meaning issues of generational wealth and cultural capital, and how they play out down the years.

Resi refuses to close her eyes to the many small treacheries we commit as adults against ideals we once proclaimed loudly. At points this can be uncomfortable, and I can sort of understand the defensive reaction of her former friends. But at the same time, Resi’s frustration with the way things are and how they stay that way are achingly familiar:

“I can do that expression too. Mothers pass it down to their daughters, along with their unfulfilled dreams. In fact, this expression tells of your dreams while your lips stay tightly pursed, and you say nothing. Lips pursed, chin jutting forward slightly – Renate is a pro at that expression. But so am I.

And Bea has started doing it too, and I can’t stand how some things just keep on playing out forever. I’d rather be angry.”

We’re not good at letting women – or working class folk, or anyone else fighting injustice – be angry. You can ask for your rights, sure, but do so politely. Smile. It’s hardly my fault I was born with more privilege, is it? Don’t blame me.

I’m with Resi though. I’d rather be angry. And if that means feeling a little bit uncomfortable? I can cope with that.

About the author

Annie Rutherford is an incorrigible bookworm and Jill of all (word-based) trades. She is the programme co-ordinator at StAnza (Scotland’s international poetry festival), a German-English literary translator, and runs Lighthouse Bookshop’s Women in Translation book group, among other things. She has been known to read while cycling (she does not recommend it), and can spot a misplaced apostrophe at a distance of fifty yards.

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