German Book Prize-winning novelist Julia Franck’s most recent work, Back to Back, is an extremely difficult book to read. This is not an issue of translation, or a comment on Franck’s narrative powers. The prose of Anthea Bell’s translation is brisk, bold, and clear; in Bell’s hands, Franck’s story is engrossing—immediately, completely. But the neglect and deprivation, emotional and sexual abuse, and tragedy and despair visited upon Back to Back’s two young protagonists make the act of reading this masterful novel painful. For Thomas and Ella, siblings growing up in communist East Berlin in the 1950s, misery isn’t merely episodic, like bad weather or strep throat. The definitive experience of these characters is one of nearly constant anguish.
I’m still recovering. The full review is up with the rest of the latest (beautiful) issue, which happens to showcase the international graphic novel.