Katharina has just found a lump on her breast. But she doesn’t have time to think about that, not with a hyperactive daughter to corral, numerous angry teachers to calm, a lopped off finger to locate, an old friend to entertain, some recalcitrant rats to find, and a long journey to take.
In those rare quiet moments though, her potential brush with mortality dredges up memories and questions: How did she end up here? Is this really all there is?
Look At Me is German author Marieke Krügel’s fourth novel, and first translated into English. It speaks to both the strength of her writing, and the skill of translator Imogen Taylor, that Katharina has such a distinctive voice. The depth of her characterisation is astounding; reading it feels like having an honest chat with a friend you’ve known forever.
Because Katharina seems so much like a fully-fledged human, with all the flaws, regrets and ill-judged ideas that that suggests, Look At Me defies convention at every turn. The jumping off point for the novel is the lump on Katharina’s breast, which after losing her mother to breast cancer, she assumes is going to be malignant. Rather than becoming mawkish or maudlin, she just carries on living, deciding to wait until the weekend is over to make a doctor’s appointment. Every sentence reinforces Katharina’s pragmatism; even when she does allow herself to worry, it’s always about the practical things, like money and childcare. She never wallows. She doesn’t have the time.
Once on the way to becoming a musicologist, with a half-written dissertation stuck in a drawer somewhere, Katharina isn’t overly-enthused about ending up as a housewife. Still, she’s a dedicated, adoring mother; the passages where she is describing her love for daughter Helli, who has ADHD, are the novel’s most moving. Her career didn’t turn out as planned, yet she wouldn’t trade her children for anything.
Katharina has a lot to deal with, much of it heavy, all of it stressful. Look At Me is not a depressing book, however. Krügel deals with weighty issues in a readable, personable style. Katharina’s pragmatism lends itself to wryness; as problems keep landing on her plate, she becomes ever more amused with her predicament. That never undercuts the emotional stakes, and often underlines them. There’s acknowledgement here that life is inherently a little ridiculous, but that doesn’t make it any less precious, or easy to extract yourself from.
Very little happens in Look At Me, at least in terms of story.Though a few of the events appear outlandish (the missing finger!), you get the sense that the book could have been set on any weekend for our protagonist. The selling point here is not plot but character; getting to know Katharina and the colourful cast of people that populate her world. Being in their company is a pleasure.
With a heroine so well-realised she feels like a friend, and piercingly true ruminations on the strange courses that life can take, Look At Me is a wildly impressive English-language debut from Marieke Krügel and Imogen Taylor.
Look At Me was published by Text Publishing on on 1 June 2018