#RivetingReviews: West Camel reviews NEW YEAR by Juli Zeh

New Year is a relatively straightforward novel: Henning, a family man approaching middle age, undertakes a mountain bike ride in Lanzarote on 1 January. As he makes the climb, he reflects on his life: his relationships with his family; his work; his past; and in particular ‘it’ – the panic attacks he battles with almost every day. He struggles through these troubling thoughts and reaches his destination at the top of the mountain pass. But once there, he finds himself reliving a moment of extreme childhood trauma – an experience that eventually allows him to unlock his suppressed emotions and potentially fulfil the ‘new year, new you’ mantra he’s been chanting to himself on his way up the mountain.

It’s a simple conceit; some readers might even find it simplistic. But Zeh manages to avoid cliché by injecting something visceral into the narrative. We feel every stroke of the pedals as Henning creeps ever more slowly up the ridge; and we feel every moment of blind panic as the child Henning scours a holiday villa for his missing parents. 

Zeh achieves this sense of immediacy by focusing on specifics. Adult Henning hasn’t brought water with him on his ride, and his dehydration is so well described it made me feel parched. But that was nothing compared to the thirst I felt as the boy Henning and his little sister Luna, apparently abandoned for days, soon run out of drinking water. Two-year-old Luna resorts to drinking from the toilet, she’s so dehydrated.  

The children’s attempts to feed and clothe themselves swiftly turn from mishaps into disasters. In some hands these events might verge on slapstick, but again, Zeh makes us focus on the specifics – and on the basest of basics: young Henning can’t change Luna’s nappy, and can only think to cover the wet beds and faeces-smeared floors with towels. The futility of his actions is simply expressed, yet it has a power that histrionics would lack. 

With these carefully observed details, Zeh draws us so close to Henning – as a man and as a boy – that when the final outcome of his mountaintop adventure arrives, it is all the more surprising and affecting, revealing an extra layer of sophistication that until then has not been apparent. 

Read New Year to have your heart moved, but also to see a virtuoso writer at work.

Reviewed by West Camel

NEW YEAR

by Juli Zeh

Translated from German by Alta L. Price

Published by World Editions (2021)

December 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.

West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. His debut novel, Attend, was shortlisted for the Polari Prize. His new novel, Fall, is published this autumn.

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Category: ReviewsDecember 2021

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