1,000 Coils of Fear by Olivia Wenzel (transl. Priscilla Layne): ‘Where do you belong?’

Cover image for 1,000 Coils of Fear by Olivia WenzelI wasn’t sure what to expect from Olivia Wenzel’s 1,000 Coils of Fear. Wenzel is a mixed-race German who grew up in the old East, a dramatist, musician and performer who’s turned her hand to fiction. Her debut draws heavily on her own life following an unnamed narrator whose mother was an East German punk and whose father returned to Angola before she was born. It’s an almost impossible book to summarise but I’ll do my best.

I have more privileges than anyone in my family ever had. And I’m still fucked. I’m hated by more people than my grandmother could ever imagine.

Our narrator opens with a metaphor: a snack machine on a railway platform which stands for her heart with its smeared glass screen and seemingly random contents. Since childhood, she’s never quite picked what she wants from these machines. Now in her thirties, she’s in the grips of a terrible anxiety that has partly sprung from the relentless racism of her home country and partly from a tragedy which devastated her family. A concerned friend persuades her to see a therapist, she seeks out the mother from whom she’s been estranged for so long, visits her best friend and some-time lover in Vietnam, and ultimately finds a surprising route to a possible happiness.

He insisted he didn’t mean any harm and that personally he thought very highly of Africans. For example, the women who took the subway with him in the mornings were always very put together.

Much of this complex, clever and thought-provoking novel is made up of long passages of questions and answers in which we’re never entirely sure who the questioner is. It’s an unsettling structure which takes some getting used to; fans of linear narratives may find it a step too far. Wenzel explores identity, racism, the legacy of the old GDR and family ties through a narrative which dips in and out of our narrator’s life, offering vivid snapshots into which details are slipped, sometimes bringing her readers up short. Of course, we’re never sure of the reliability or otherwise of our narrator who occasionally pulls the carpet out from under her readers’ feet. We spend the entirety of the novel in her head, not a comfortable place to be given its convincing portrayal of the disorder and fear of a mind gripped by anxiety. In German, the novel’s title is 1000 Serpentinen Angst which I much prefer: it does, at times, feel that our narrator has a headful of serpents, seemingly impossible to unravel. By the end of the novel, many questions are left unanswered but the narrator has succeeded in loosening the serpents’ grip, although the relentless racism remains inescapable. A challenging, impressive and striking novel, it left me with a good deal to think about.

Dialogue Books: London 9780349702025 288 pages Hardback

10 thoughts on “1,000 Coils of Fear by Olivia Wenzel (transl. Priscilla Layne): ‘Where do you belong?’”

  1. I saw in on a NYT list earlier this year, as a much anticipated translated book. Just bought it and looking forward to reading it.

  2. It sounds really interesting. I haven’t always got on with the novels coming through this imprint, although I very much appreciate the focus and the creative talent. Reading your review actually made me think about Natasha Brown’s Assembly which I loved. I’m sure this one would be worthwhile. Great to see it getting attention.

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