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Juli Zeh: Neujahr (New Year)

Henning is a German who works in a publishing house. He is married to Theresa and they have two young children – Jonas and Bibbi. For Christmas, he decided, without telling Theresa in advance, that they would spend two weeeks in Lanzarote. He would have liked to rent one of the fancy villas, but could not afford to do so, so they have a skinny slice of a townhouse sandwiched between others that all looked alike. It does, however, have a shared pool.

The children are very happy, Theresa less so but he reminds her that the temperature is one degree in Germany and it is sleeting. Most of what they do is for the children. Henning is not a particularly good father, in that he does not enjoy spending much time with them, particularly when Theresa is not there. He cynically remarks work is no longer the enemy of free time, but rather a self-defence strategy for escaping the kids’ clutches

Both work part-time so that they can share child-minding duties. Theresa, an accountant, earns more that Henning and is somewhat resentful that Henning does not, in her opinion, pull his weight, not least because when the children have a problem, they go to their mother.

At the start of the novel we finally find him alone, cycling up a hill. It is New Year’s Day 2018 (New year, new you, he says to himself several times) and he is determined to cycle up the hill to Mount Atalaya. Much of the book is about his cycle ride though, on this ride, he thinks a lot about his life, past and present, and shares his thoughts with us. The ride is initially not too difficult but it does get steeper as he approaches the summit. Foolishly, he has not brought any food or water with him, nor any money to purchase any and is not appropriately dressed for a hot cycle ride.

While we do follow the ride, it is his thoughts on his life that concern us most. Basically, his life is not going well. For some time, he has been having frequent panic attacks. These manifest themselves with acute stomach pains and major heart palpitations. There is no obvious trigger, though they do seem to occur more at night. He feels, each time, that he is going to die but has read on the Internet that no-one dies from panic attacks. He has a check-up and, physically, there is no problem.

Theresa was initially sympathetic but recently has been less so. Your neuroses are hurting the whole family. Pull yourself together already! Be a man! A man I can love!

Henning’s father left when he and his sister, Luna, were very young and has only put in sporadic appearances since. Their mother devoted herself to bringing them up, sacrificing all of her personal life, though she made sure the children were aware of her sacrifice. Henning and Luna remained very close. Henning left as soon as he went to university and Luna followed soon after, leaving school and becoming something of a drifter, frequently changing jobs, boyfriends, residence and cities. Indeed, to Theresa’s disgust, she will often come and stay with them. Henning remains very protective of his younger sister.

As Henning cycles on, he thinks more and more about his anxieties. However, he is clearly exhausted and dehydrated when he reaches a house at the summit and more or less collapses there, only to be rescued by a fellow German, an artist who, like his mother, paints stones. She looks after him but clearly her house triggers something in him and he recalls in considerable detail a major traumatic event from his childhood which may or may not be a contributory factor to his panic attacks.

The traumatic event is a key part of the book and takes up a considerable part of the later chapters. However, the book does go into some detail both about Hennings’s life but also about modern German life compared to that of previous generations. Both Henning and Theresa claim they love their children and almost certainly do but also find them something of a nuisance. This is compared to the sacrifices Henning’s mother made to bring up Henning and Luna. However, interestingly enough, while both sets of grandparents are happy to be occasional grandparents, both live a long way from Henning and Theresa and seem happy to do so.

The other obvious comparison is with Henning and his mother. She had a troubled life but got on with it. She did complain but she knew she had to be there for her children at all times. Henning has his attacks and Theresa is always eager to hand off care of the children to Henning.

Of course there may be more. Zeh dedicates this book For David, who knows what this is about. What does David know that we do not? (This is presumably David Finck (link in German), her husband.) Perhaps it is something to do with Lanzarote as this is not her first book set there.

Whatever David knows that we do not this is a very fine book and cleverly thought out. The key part of the book which explains some (though not all) of Henning’s behaviour comes as something of a surprise and is very well done. Zeh continues to write quality novels.

Publishing history

First published 2018 by Luchterhand
First English translation in 2021 by World Editions
Translated by Alta L Price