I was excited to pick up Angela Lehner’s novel 2001, describing seemingly unrelated events in a remote Austrian town in the period leading up to the September 11 attacks in Manhattan. I was only eight years old then, too young to fathom what it meant when the planes crashed into the Twin Towers, forever shaking perceptions of Western security. Angela Lehner, born in 1987, must have been fourteen or fifteen, the same age as her novel’s protagonist Julia.
Julia is an anti-hero treading a fine line, rejecting the rules of rural society in which she lives, while struggling to get through adolescence. She wants to be a hip-hop superstar, but she lives in Tal, a godforsaken Austrian village, where tourists love to ski while she can’t afford to. With a poor support system, a brother who wants to get out, and a crew of friends who are but teenagers themselves, it is a fight against the odds.
Lehner seamlessly combines the political with the apparently apolitical existence of Julia and the inhabitants of Tal to show how the destinies and traumas of individuals are inherently linked to the collective. This becomes evident when the history teacher attempts to implement a political experiment, reminiscent of the ‘Milgram experiment’ (1961). Each student represents a political character or institution and can only act as their assigned character in class. Julia is given the role of the United Nations, while the other participants engage in uncmfortable discussions about the news and world politics. The teacher is biased: the left-leaning students aren’t allowed to speak: racist rhetoric gets out of hand. Julia retreats, unable to find her voice. However, Julia would not be Julia if she resigned herself to hopelessness. When she stands up to right-wing bullies during a bar fight, she gets involved in an argument with the local police and is forced to spend hours cleaning phone booths. As the experiment continues, what happens in the classroom increasingly resembles real world politics. With various factions pointing fingers at a common foe – the immigrant.
The skill of Lehner’s writing lies in the way she highlights social and political issues through engaging characters and a gripping story. Above all, this novel elevates the classic yet relatable coming-of-age story to a critique of socio-political structures. The final dénouement exceeds all expectations, as Julia breaks through her emotional paralysis in a dramatic turn linked to world events. The last page of the novel is dated 9/11/2001.
Reviewed by Hannah Kaip
by Angela Lehner
Published by Hanser (2021)
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Hannah Kaip is a trained conference interpreter for German, English and French, from Austria. She is responsible for Science, Education and Dance as well as the library at the Austrian Cultural Forum London. She is pursuing a degree in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes at the Metanoia Institute in Bristol.