Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some novels have a distinctive style and perspective that are as much a part of the story as the plot is. That’s the sort of story Zoran Drvenkar’s You is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.
The novel follows several plot threads. One follows the Traveler. We first meet this character in 1995, during a terrible snowstorm that blocks the road between Bad Hersfeld and Eisenach. Many vehicles are stranded on the road; even emergency vehicles can’t get through. By the time the road is cleared, the Traveler has worked his way along the stranded cars, murdering twenty-six people, and gotten away. As the story moves along, we learn more about the Traveler and his story, and we see what’s happened to him since 1995.
Another plot thread begins in the present day, where we are introduced to Ragnar Desche. His brother Oskar has just been murdered, and Desche wants to find out who’s responsible. He also discovers that the stash of heroin and other drugs that his brother was keeping for him has disappeared. Desche is a man sensible people don’t want to cross; he’s a formidable opponent who is not without resources. He’s also ruthless and, when he chooses, violent.
At the same time, we meet four teenage girls: Sunmi ‘Schnappi’ Mehlau, Ruth Wassermann, Isabell ‘Stink’ Kramer, and Vanessa ‘Nessi’ Altenburg. They’ve been close friends since primary school, and are devoted to each other (more about that shortly). They’re concerned about Taja, the fifth member of their tightly-knit group, because no-one’s seen or heard from her in a week. So, they decide to find out if she’s all right.
As the story goes on, the three plot threads evolve, and begin to intersect. And, as that happens, we slowly learn the truth about these five teenagers, Ragnar Desche and his family, and about the Traveler. The end result is real tragedy for more than one character.
This is a noir story, so we see several noir elements in the novel. We see the dark, bleak side of human nature, and the ending isn’t what you’d call a happy one. Things are not what they seem to be, and many of the characters are extremely dysfunctional. In keeping with the noir nature of the story, there’s plenty of violence, some of it brutal. And a great deal of it is matter-of-fact.
That said, though, there are some proverbial rays of light in the story. One of them is the deep friendship among the teenage girls. Shnappi, Nessi, Ruth, Stink and Taja are loyal to one another; and, without spoiling the story, I can say that there are several scenes in which we see how much they care about each other. They take real risks for each other. It’s also worth noting that, although this isn’t at all what you’d call a light story, we do see some fun banter among these girls – the kind that good friends trade. They get annoyed with each other, tell each other the unvarnished truth, and are devoted to each other despite everyone’s flaws.
It’s also worth noting that this isn’t a case of ‘trapped helpless females.’ These young ladies are brave, resourceful, and quick-thinking. They are truly determined, too.
We learn quite a lot about these five girls, too, as we do about the other characters in the novel. Each part of the story features one of the characters (Ragnar, the teenagers, the Traveler, and several others). This means that each character is developed. We learn each one’s backstory, and each one’s motivation. What’s especially interesting in this particular novel is that it’s told in second person, and in present tense. Here, for instance, is one small snippet that features Nessi:
‘You look at your wrist, the tattoo gleams dully. Gone. You can’t take your eyes off those four letters and wonder what would happen if you saw all the things in your dreams that you don’t want to see in real life.’
The narrative goes back and forth a bit, too. Readers who prefer linear narratives with one sequence will notice this.
In one sense, this is a thriller. There is a great deal of action, danger, and suspense, and the pacing is thriller-like. But this could also be placed in the ‘literary’ category. The narrative and descriptions have a literary quality about them:
‘You remember the movie as if you’ve been blind and deaf for the last two hours. Everything that comes toward you flows around you and disappears without a trace, behind your back, lost and gone forever. But then…you work out that this isn’t really about the movie; Schnappi’s language is a secret language, she says one thing and means another.’
And, like other literary novels, this one explores several themes.
One of them is the nature of evil. Through the actions and conversations, Drvenkar addresses the question of what evil is, how it starts, and how it spreads. In a similar way, Drvenkar also explores friendship, loyalty, and courage.
The story is set mostly in Germany, in Berlin, Hamburg, and a few other places. Drvenkar places the reader there in several ways, including daily life, teen culture, and travel. Readers who’ve lived in Germany, or spent any extended time there, will find the context familiar.
You is a psychological thriller in the literary style. It tells the story of a group of lives on a fateful collision course, and presents a noir picture of modern life in Germany. But what’s your view? Have you read You? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 12 June/Tuesday, 13 June – Red Ink – Angela Makholwa
Monday, 19 June/Tuesday, 20 June – Falling Angel – William Hjortsberg
Monday, 26 June/Tuesday, 27 June – Not a Creature Was Stirring – Jane Haddam