Two sisters, a dysfunctional family, and a bit of romance.
Helen MacCormac on Caroline Wahl and her debut novel, 22 Bahnen
I work for Literaturhaus Kassel and get to invite amazing writers to talk about their books and the ideas that inspire them. If you have never heard about “Literaturhäuser” before, you can read Susan Bernofsky’s take on the ones in Berlin here and there’s another article in The Dial that I found really useful.
BTW, we have just moved to this amazing location!!!
We wanted to start the new season with a bang, so we booked Caroline Wahl for one of our first readings at our beautiful new venue. 22 Bahnen shot straight onto the bestseller lists when it came out in April and has remained there ever since. Caroline’s readings are sold out, and her audiences love her.
Our reading very nearly didn’t happen, though. Caroline got caught up in some German Bahnchaos and couldn’t get to Kassel. When she did finally arrive (at the end of October because everyone kept their tickets 😊), we weren’t sure what to expect audience-wise:
22 Bahnen is a coming-of-age story. 25-year-old Tilda is running on a tight schedule. She lives in a boring town where she looks after her 10-year-old sister and her alcoholic mum, and works at a supermarket to fund her maths degree. The best part of the day is swimming 22 lengths at the local pool. This is where she meets Viktor – and life seems full of possibilities all of a sudden. But Viktor is fighting his own demons.
It turned out that most of the audience were women in their fifties or sixties, as surprised as us that there weren’t more younger people there.
Caroline read three moving and gripping passages from 22 Bahnen, answering questions in between, and pre-empting a few more: No, she didn’t go swimming every day, and no, this was definitely not an autobiographical novel. She explained that she found characters from difficult backgrounds like Angelika Klüssendorf’s Das Mädchen inspiring, and had wanted to invent somebody who was strong and resilient but still had hopes and dreams, despite her situation.
As she talked, Caroline reminded me of Tilda. Tough, funny. Smart, with the same taste in clothes: pink fluffy jumper, long flowery skirt and chunky boots. We chatted about how the book came about. Caroline revealed that she’d been living in Zurich at the time, unhappy in the city and her job and had started the book project to cheer herself up. She wrote the first draft in just three months, and I wondered if that was part of its appeal? It is a captivating read: happy-sad feel-good escapism with a touch of kitsch. Caroline said she hadn’t expected the kitsch to happen, but added that it’s good kitsch, and she’s right.
Despite garnering a whole bunch of awards, 22 Bahnen hasn’t been nominated for any of the major literary prizes. Germany still likes to distinguish between E (serious) and U (entertaining) literature. I don’t think Caroline minds. With her debut, she has achieved more than most writers manage in a lifetime, able to give up her day job to focus on her writing. Her next novel, Windstärke 17, set on Rügen island, is due out in May.
My favourite line: “Hey Siri, call the police!”
Editor’s note: If all this has you curious but you don’t read German, the publishers have an English sample available here, translated by Gesche Ipsen.