Ruth Martin’s German Books of the Year

Ruth Martin © Cemanthe McKenzie

Continuing our series of translators’ recommendations from 2023 is Ruth Martin with two top reads.

Drifter by Ulrike Sterblich, Rowohlt 2023

Drifter was a surprise inclusion on the shortlist for this year’s Deutscher Buchpreis. It’s a joyous, genre-defying novel in which two ordinary friends have their lives turned upside down by the mysterious and possibly magical Ludovica Malabene, a woman in a gold dress who travels with a small entourage and a huge dog. Who is she? Where has she come from? How does she know so much about them? Spoiler: we never really find out, but that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s the journey that’s important – and the journey takes us to all kinds of unexpected places, including hypnotic performance art, an online fan community dedicated to an anonymous cult author, and a piece of wearable tech that seems able to access the user’s dreams and memories. The critics’ response can be summarised as: “I don’t know what the hell I just read, but I really liked it”. I will be seeking out Sterblich’s other books immediately.

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, tr. Shaun Whiteside, Vintage 2022

Written in 1968 and translated in 1990, The Wall has recently been reissued as a Vintage Classic with a very stylish cover and a nice afterword by Claire-Louise Bennett. (So, hard to say it was a book of 2023, but this was the year I first read it, which means it still counts, right?) A kind of post-apocalyptic story, it is distinguished by its sole-survivor protagonist being a middle-aged woman. She is on holiday at her cousin’s hunting lodge when an impenetrable transparent wall appears overnight, cutting her off from the world. Every living creature on the other side seems to have died. After the initial shock of finding herself isolated and trapped in the mountains, she pulls herself together and gets on with the practical business of survival, foraging and growing meagre crops, surprised by her own mental and physical resources. It’s a satisfying and at times emotional read (TW: some bad things happen to animals), in a beautiful translation by Shaun Whiteside.

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