#RivetingReviews: Paul Burke reviews TASTING SUNLIGHT by Ewald Arenz

It’s easy to see why this joyful novel was such a smash in Arenz’s native Germany. If your mood is low, or you just want to feel more positive about humanity in these grubby, desperate times, this heart-warming tale will leave you in a better place than it finds you. A proper tonic for the soul, it explores a familiar theme – two lost souls thrown together in unusual circumstances finding redemption; but it’s so elegantly done, so shot through with truth, so bristling with freshness and energy, it is invigorating. 

Teenager Sally has escaped from the residential clinic where she is being treated for anorexia. The staff, the regime, the daily plans and rules, all leave her feeling powerless. Consequently, Sally is angry with the world. She feels unloved and is mistrustful of adults; they always seem to want something from her. She has left the clinic with no clear plan; but serendipity intervenes. 

Summer is ending as she arrives at Liss’s farm. The guy she was hitching with seemed OK at first, but soon proves to be trouble, so she gets out of his car on a country road. As she walks across a field she sees a woman toiling. Though she usually tries to avoid contact, curiosity about the woman, who seems to be working singlehanded, gets the better of her. When the woman asks for help with her tractor, Sally agrees. Liss offers her a room for the night and a meal, no strings attached. Gradually, Sally begins to relax; Liss, in her forties, seems to be the first adult not demanding something of her. She doesn’t quite feel safe but it’s ‘as if she were falling very slowly; so slowly that there was no need to fear the impact’.

Sally’s story begins to emerge, but so does that of Liss. As trust develops between them each cautiously opens up. Eventually they put into words the things they have somehow already recognised in each other. Sally has questions: why is Liss alone on the farm she inherited from her abusive father? Where is Sonny, the boy she grew up loving and later marrying? And why is she cut off from the world on this isolated farm?

As the days pass, and no one comes to find Sally, they bond over small victories and incremental connections. Sally helps with the potato harvest and the bee-keeping, and she becomes interested in nature. Of course, there are set-backs; Sally runs off but inevitably comes back. As an easy humour creeps into their relationship we see they are good for each other. There are revelations to come, of course, as the depth of their trauma is disclosed, but what starts out as a woman helping a teenager becomes a mutual dependency. They end up needing each other.

This is a bravura coming-of-age novel; a stunning debut exploring vulnerability and fragility, mental health and the burdens we carry and overcome. It’s about how the right person at the right time can reawaken an interest in the world and in life. These two damaged women share and grow together, and it’s beautiful to witness. The women’s trauma is evident, but so is their resilience, their power, their fellowship, as they discover a renewed joie de vivre. This is draining at times but, ultimately, it is flooded with glorious sunlight.

Reviewed by Paul Burke

TASTING SUNLIGHT 

by Ewald Arenz

Translated by Rachel Ward

Published by Orenda (2022)

July 2022 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Paul Burke writes The Verdict column for nbmagazine.co.uk, interviews, articles and features for crimefictionlover.com, crimetime.co.uk and presents for Crime Time TV&FM podcast. Paul is a book collector, lover of literature in translation and a crime fiction aficionado.

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