Cover Image: Beside Myself

Beside Myself

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Member Reviews

This is an ambitious novel, with a lot going on, and I felt at times that it was really several books in one. With so many narratives to concentrate on, for me it just didn’t work as a cohesive and satisfying story. It jumps about in time and place, explores various themes and ideas, and presents the reader with too many characters to fully engage with any of them. At its heart, however, is the story of twins Ali and Anton. They arrive in Germany from the Soviet Union with their parents and then one day Anton simply leaves home with no warning or explanation. All they have to go on is a postcard from Istanbul. Missing her other half, Ali sets out to find him. Whilst Ali wanders round the city looking for him, the books explores the family’s past, back to her great grandparents, and these were the sections that I enjoyed the most. Descriptions of life in the Soviet Union I found particularly interesting and atmospheric. However, when in Istanbul Ali’s search puts her in contact with the transgender community, and this just didn’t work for me. It all felt tacked onto the main narrative rather than integral to it and overall I felt that the book didn’t do the transgender community justice, especially when Ali decides to explore that aspect of her own identity. Themes of sexuality, identity, family, migration, anti-Semitism - there’s a lot to think about here and I would have preferred a more focussed approach. The book needs quite a lot of commitment from the reader and for me the reward wasn’t always worth the effort. That said, much of the writing is very good indeed, as is some of the characterisation, and the panoramic nature of the book does sometimes pay off, tracing as it does the lives of four generations of the same family. But I definitely found the Istanbul episodes troubling and this coloured my view of the novel as a whole.

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An appealing series launch [about] a strong-willed, good-hearted woman who isn't afraid to get her hands dirty. And get what she want .

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I didn't make past the first 30 pages or so, and I rarely stop reading a book once I start. If I hadn't read the description of the book I wouldn't have had any idea what the story line is. I just wan't able to really follow along, maybe I'll try again when I'm not as exhausted from the holidays.

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In her debut novel, renowned theater author Sasha Marianna Salzmann intertwines different stories of migration: We encounter the twins Alissa and Anton whose Jewish family fled from the Soviet Union to Germany. In numerous captivating vignettes, Salzmann tells this family's story three generations back and, by that, European history from an Eastern European Jewish perspective. But this novel does not only take the reader through space and time, but also questions the borders between genders: Alissa, called Ali, travels to Istanbul (the city that lies half in Europe, half in Asia) to look for Anton, and when she can't find him, she tries to become him - although there are plenty of references in the text that suggest that Anton does not exist as a seperate person, but that Ali/Anton are one and the same person.

It was interesting to follow the discussion about this (well-received) book in Germany: Some critics referred to Ali/Anton as a "hermaphrodite", some as "transgender", none (at least that I am aware of) considered the possibility that Ali/Anton is non-binary in a way as it is discussed in Freshwater or Jonny Appleseed. Salzmann refers to Ali/Anton as "he" or "she", but she has no other choice: The gender-neutral "they" does not exist in German (it also wouldn't work, because both "she" and "they" translate as "sie"). I wouldn't argue that the story of the twins is successful throughout - in parts, it meanders rather aimlessly and Anton's passages towards the end aren't particularly interesting - but it certainly questions traditional concepts of gender, which hasn't been done in Germany to the same degree as in other countries, namely the US.

There is no doubt though that the vignettes about the family members are very well-written and interesting - it's astounding that although from a theoretical point of view, these should be way too many characters, it does never feel exhausting. It remains unclear how many of these stories are in fact true - Salzmann herself grew up in Moscow and came to Germany as a Jewish quota refugee (I hope that's the correct translation for "Kontingentflüchtling") in 1995.

So yes, this book is flawed, but I can also see why it won the highest-paying prize for a debut novel written in German. I guess there is a lot of interesting stuff to come from this author.

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