You may already know Meike Ziervogel’s name. She’s the founder of Peirene Press who publish three thought-provoking novellas in translation a year, several of which I’ve reviewed on this blog. Flotsam’s not her first book but it’s the first I’ve read by her. Set on the German coast in the 1950s, Ziervogel’s strange, unsettling novella is a beautifully expressed exploration of the legacy of war and the grief it brings.
Trine is playing on the shipwreck not far from the cottage where her mother has lived since her father suggested the family leaves Berlin during the war. Her brother Carl falls from the rigging, apparently dead but Trine decides not to interrupt her mother’s daily beach combing, instead dragging his body home, planning to give him a pirate’s burial. On the cusp of adolescence, Trine is an outsider, the butt of sneering bullies, but when she sets fire to the shipwreck her status changes. She’s someone to be reckoned with now. Her mother, Anna, has collected what the sea throws up for years until it fills several of the cottage’s rooms. Once an artist, she had plans to make something of these bits and pieces but nothing ever comes of it. One day she thinks she sees a man who may be Carl, trudging through the mudflats, and her thoughts turn to the war. As this evocative novella draws to a close, Anna at last finds a use for her daily gatherings.
As you may have gathered from that synopsis, this is not an easy book to write about without muffling the small shocks and perplexities which readers should experience for themselves Told first from Trine’s perspective then Anna’s, it’s the briefest of novellas yet it provokes more thought than many books three times its length. Written in often lyrical yet spare, clean prose, Flotsam is haunted by grief, leaving much for readers to deduce for themselves. Ziervogel’s setting reflects the shifting ambiguity of much of the novel in its atmospheric descriptions:
The blue sky is cloudless. A flock of oystercatchers is heading out towards the sea, which is nothing more than a thin line on the horizon
It was impossible to imagine that in just a few hours all of this would be covered by the sea, which seemed to have disappeared beyond the horizon, dropped off the face of the earth.
Ziervogel’s novella is likely to take you less than an afternoon to read, her own criterion for the books Peirene publishes, but I’d be surprised if you weren’t thinking about it for some time after you’ve finished.