German editions of Juli Zeh’s novels come with Spiegel-Bestseller splashed across them for good reason. They are very readable, and I don’t mean that disparagingly. There’s nothing quite like being drawn into a well-plotted story of 400+ pages and polishing it off in three sittings. That Zeh manages to do this with a novel set at the height of the recent pandemic is all the more remarkable. The novel was, in fact, written contemporaneously, the original German edition appearing in March 2021, when lockdown restrictions had yet to be lifted. In that respect, About People might be considered the German companion to The Fell by Sarah Moss.
The story begins in Berlin, where Dora is locked down with Robert in an apartment, thankful that her dog, Jay, gives her the perfect excuse for three walks a day. Not just to get some air, but for respite from her boyfriend. Initially a moderate, Robert has morphed into a Thunberg-converted environmental warrior. He demonstrates the same uncompromising zeal towards staying safe, and becomes utterly impossible to live with. When he states he will no longer tolerate her walking the dog, Dora flees to a run-down property she had recently purchased in the Brandenburg village of Bracken.
Cue the clash of civilisations. But it’s not between East and West. It’s between Berlin and Bracken. Between metropolis and province, centre and perimeter, city and outskirts.
Dora’s experience of the pandemic in Bracken bears not the slightest resemblance to that in Berlin. She spends most of her time outdoors, attempting to tame and cultivate her land. Social distancing may be practiced and masks worn from time to time, but there is no obsession with the virus. Admittedly the government in Berlin is not popular, but this is not due to Covid policies, rather the lack of support for agricultural communities. That and, for some, immigration policy.
Dora, in fleeing the tyranny of her left-wing partner, has moved to AfD voting territory, and finds herself livlng next door to the village Nazi. Goth sings the Horst Wessel song with his buddies in the evening, berates fellow villagers for their homosexuality and employing immigrant workers, and neglects his young daughter. At the same time he is capable of acts of generosity and kindness, and is a talented wood carver. He offers Dora friendship, which leads to all kinds of soul-searching. Is it possible to be friends with someone whose values are so at odds with one’s own? In some respects Dora has already answered that in the negative with regards to Robert’s left-wing zealotry. How will she respond to Goth, particularly when his odious past comes to light?
The matter is further complicated by Dora’s growing attachment to his daughter, who is inseparable from the dog, Jay. When Goth becomes seriously ill, Dora finds herself adopting a mother’s role, not only in relation to the child, but also to the man. She cannot simply ignore the needs of her fellow human because of his ideology. Can she?
That is the crux of the matter for Zeh, who is vocal about the polarisation of society, caused by entrenched positions and cancel culture. In the city it is easy to find replacement friends, jobs, new accommodation when one or the other no longer suits. In the countryside you have to rub along with those you find to make things work. Zeh speaks from first-hand experience as a long-time resident of a Brandenburg village. However, with an unapologetic neo-Nazi acting as the catalyst for Dora’s attitude adjustment, she ran the risk of polarising her readership in exactly the way she laments. A quick look at the reviews on Goodreads proves she didn’t entirely avert it.
Reviewed by Lizzy Siddal
by Juli Zeh
Translated from the German by Alta L Price
Published by World Editions (2023)
December 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
Lizzy Siddal is a British bibliophile and book blogger of sixteen years. She publishes her reviews at Lizzy’s Literary Life (Volume Two) where she co-hosts Reading Independent Publishers Month each February and German Literature Month each November.
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