What's life like for a 12-year-old growing up in the 1960s in the industrial Ruhr area of Germany? Rothmann's masterful novel brings the adolescent protagonist's world to life through precise psychological details.
"It was the first day of the holidays, that gentle, slightly incredulous awakening in the sun, which was shining on my bed at an angle through the pot plants. I yawned, kneeled on the pillow and drew the curtains a little further apart, slowly, to avoid making any sounds."
A day begins. A day in Julian's life. It is the first day of vacation, and we accompany Julian over a few weeks during this time. We meet his mother and father, his little sister Sophie, the girl next door, Marusha, and a handful of other neighbors. The book is set in the heart of the Ruhr district, an industrial area of western Germany where the author, born in 1953, grew up.
Rothmann's novel was published in Germany in 2004 when the author was well over 50, but it is frankly astonishing how he manages to put himself in the shoes of an adolescent. The reader gets to know the world of a 12-year-old through the perspective of Julian.
Strictly speaking, the world the author introduces us to is entirely unspectacular. Not too much actually happens over the course of the roughly 240-page-long novel Young Light. A 12-year-old is surrounded by metal mining towers and blocks of high-rise apartment buildings. The mother takes the sister to a health spa because she has problems with her gall bladder. The father does not get vacation time, and so Julian's days alternate between boredom, small excursions and encounters with Marusha, the girl next door who is three years older than him and who turns not only Julian's head.
"One could see the moon again; the clouds were clearing above the winding tower; and I carefully lifted the lever and pushed open the door to the balcony. Far away, in the valley behind the fields, I heard the rumblings of the freight train that connected the mines and coking plants; occasionally something banged against the rails, and I tried to vain to make someone out behind Marusha's curtains."
Rothmann describes this everyday life of boredom, pubescent awakening and hunger for discovery with such intensity that Julian comes to life before the reader's eyes. The reader can dive into the emotional world of a 12-year-old thanks to Rothmann's unnervingly precise psychological perspective and his ability to realistically depict the surrounding world in great detail.
"My father yawned. He was still wearing his pyjama trousers and a vest, and scratched his stomach and chest with both hands. Then he put the pot with the barley in it on the small hotplate borrowed from Frau Schulz, and I snapped the lunchbox shut."
At some points in Young Light, its precise descriptions of inner and outer worlds make it seem like a movie screenplay. Film director Adolf Winkelmann, who also lives in the Ruhr area, may have thought the same thing some 12 years later. His movie version of Ralf Rothmann's novel is one of the most successful film adaptations of German literature made in recent years.
Ralf Rothmann: Young Light, Seagull (German title: Junges Licht, 2004). English translation: Wieland Hoban.
Ralf Rothmann is an award-winning author of novels and stories. Born in 1953 in Schleswig, northern Germany, he moved to the Ruhr area with his family as a small child. His first novel, Young Light, focuses on life in the Ruhr industrial area, while his other novels are set in Berlin, his home of many years.