Cover Image: Higher Ground

Higher Ground

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Member Reviews

It's a very series and grim read. A very complex look at German culture and perhaps the pathology of life in a divided country - troubled and flawed as it might be. Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC.
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It took me a month to read Anke Stelling’s Higher Ground. A month, not because I wasn’t enjoying Stelling’s writing, but because I was in the depths of a reading rut. So, I didn’t give this book the attention and focus it deserved. And, had I read it in my usual week, I’m quite certain that the key themes – class and creativity – would have made a much stronger impression.

The story focuses on Resi, a writer in her mid-forties, married to Sven, a painter. They live in an apartment building in Berlin, where their lease is controlled by some of Resi’s closest friends. Those same friends live nearby, in a house they have built together with others from their social circle – an experiment in communal living that the group dreamed about in their twenties. Resi and Sven were given the opportunity to buy a share in the communal house, but opted to continue renting, a decision driven by Resi’s childhood, and her sense of place in the group.

Two key things happen – firstly, Resi and Sven had four children, and as Resi observes, ‘…children cost money, and you shouldn’t buy what you can’t afford.’

I must be a megalomaniac to think I could start a mega-big family without mega-grandparents and a mega-car and mega-incomes. It was rash. It was anti-social.

Secondly, Resi observes her once-idealistic friends become more and more ensconced in the comforts and compromises of money and success. She writes a book, openly criticising stereotypical family life and values, and soon after, she receives a letter of eviction, and realises that ‘…there are other kinds of currencies besides euros and cents’.

Only now, six years later, do I understand: Ingmar wanted to lend us the money to have us around, to spice up the building group, so it could be presented to its members and the outside world as a social project. ‘Well, we also have low-wage earners on board, you know. Artists…’

My thoughts about this novel are all over the place because of the disrupted reading, however, a few observations –

01. I immediately thought of the Bad Art Friend.

We need fables about how to bear unhappiness. Stories about hungry hearts, which you can tell without breaking your own.

02. Wasn’t a huge fan of the fact that Resi’s stream-of-consciousness is directed at her fourteen-year-old daughter, Bea, ostensibly to warn Bea about the falseness of people. Although it gave Stelling the opportunity to explain the basis for Resi’s actions, it also had a hint of tired lecturing.

03. I enjoyed Resi’s honesty regarding motherhood. She captures the overwhelming tedium and the immense love that often sit side-by-side.

Until I had children myself, I had no idea how powerless and power-drunk becoming a mother can make you.

And the bits about the decision to have four children (I have four children and it’s stunning how frequently people comment on the number) –

I have no idea how we manage, but recently I realised that ‘How on earth do you manage?’ isn’t a question or a compliment. It’s a euphemism that shows the person asking doesn’t think your life is manageable, and that you’re stupid to even try.

04. The flashbacks to Resi’s time at high school, when her friendships were forming and she first begins to notice the differences between having money and not, were very well done – again, Stelling captures the conflicting emotions perfectly.

Higher Ground was originally published in German, and is translated by Lucy Jones. I received my copy from the publisher, Scribe, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

3.5/5 I will certainly read more Stelling, and in the future I will make sure the reading experience is not diluted by time.
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This tells the story of a writer who publishes a book about being poor and hiding it from your children, having rich friends, her struggles and grievances - except her friends read this book, take offense and evict her from the apartment she and her family rent. This is translated from the German and it was such an interesting story about class, poverty, cultural expectations and so on. Such a good, thoughtful read with great writing and flawless translation!
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A very complex look at German culture and perhaps the pathology of life in a divided country - troubled and flawed as it might be. I enjoyed it but it was a dense read.
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2.5 rounded up. I wanted to like this - the themes are interesting - money, class, privilege, envy, friendship... But I found the format of the book confusing and the writing irritating. It is not down to the translation, which is actually beautiful and smooth, so the novel is in fact well-written. I found the dates, all jumbled up, confusing - 2013, 2002, 1963, 1987... The fact that some of it - within the same paragraph - is written using the third person singular, then second person singular, then first person, to talk about the same event and the same characters, was also frustrating and did not read well. It's a witty book with many clever comments, but I found that the themes described in the summary as the main themes (class, money, etc) came after the comments on motherhood, which were more pedestrian. The main character, Resi, who has "a low-wage job and four children, a rented flat that obviously doesn't belong to [her], an adorable but equally low-earning husband", was whiny and envious, but this could have been explored with more depth - and more vitriol. Most of the book is addressed to her daughter Bea, who is 14, and aims to explain to her things her own mother Marianne never explained - that it is hard to move up in society, that your friends will have more money and will look down on you, and that you will become resentful. But this message gets lost on the way amid the rambling about kitchen floors and dinners with frenemies. 

'I'll buy you one', I say.
'What?'
'A Fjällräven backback. So that you realise it won't make you happy'.
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I tried but this novel of a woman- Resi- taking to her teenage daughter - Bea- about economic disparity felt more like a lecture than a novel.  While it's set in Berlin, the characters might feel familiar to those who have read similar novels set in Brooklyn, London, and such locales.  I appreciated the writing but not enough to finish.  Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC.  A rare pass from me for a novel I'm sure some fans of literary fiction will enjoy.
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I had a hard time getting through this book.  I do not like the style of writing and I don't like Ressi.  The narrator is all over the place talking about things that happened to her Mom when she was young and then jumping back to her own problems in the next paragraph.  This one is not for me.
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I'm not sure if I missed the point of this book. I didn't love her stream-of-conscious style of writing, I found it quite grating and I couldn't focus on the content of the story because of the writing style. I enjoyed the insight into the gentrification and upheaval of class and circumstance. I found Resi wildly unlikable and quite irritating, I didn't root for her and I actively didn't want her to succeed.
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I loved loved loved this. Resi, the narrator, is an absolute mess, very difficult to like or sympathise with, despite how extremely reasonable her fear, anger and despair are. She is wildly dramatic in the most enjoyably infuriating way - if only to read about. If she was your friend you'd tear your hair out. If you lived with her you might lose your mind. 

Higher Ground is about gentrification, class, friendship, family and art. Resi is a writer, an occupation which she both reveres and scorns, and if I tell you that she likens it to pissing on the pavement, well, you should get an idea of the tone of the novel. I found this a blackly funny read, beautifully written (and/or fantastically translated by Lucy Jones).
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Fascinating look at the West German psyche, or pathology, with glimpses of the 1930s and pre-fall of the Wall, to modern day. Resi is just about the Berlinest Berliner I've ever read about, she and Sven are über liberal, low-earning artsy parents; and were up until recently included in a cooperative nucleus of longterm friends. Resi was always the poor one in the group, which carried through to adulthood as all the rest are now coincidentally professionals. Resi is a writer, a rebel, and a survivor. She likes to think the chip on her shoulder isn't what drove her to out her friends' bougie travails in an article followed by a novel, that it isn't what got her and her family kicked out of their comfy subsidized housing. I like the way she narrates this story about imminent homelessness to her 14-yr old daughter Bea, while her other kids 11-yo Jack, 8-yo Kieran who likes killing things, and 5-yo Lynn run amok in the background.

From the opening to the very last line, author Anke Stelling kills it. Resi reminisces and ruminates entertainingly about everything from the slings and arrows her mother suffered, cigarette addiction, gentrification, Nazi Gauleiter Franz, to the poison of maternal love.
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I didn’t like the stream of consciousness style of writing and thought the narrator was self-absorbed. It’s a no from me.
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Higher Ground (Sheep in the Shed in its original German edition) is Stelling's third novel dealing with specific social issues. It won the Leipzig Book Fair Prize and is her first to be translated into English (by Lucy Jones). These and a children's book  take on issues of parent(mother)hood, caregiving and ways of living in society. In an interview she says "I don’t think the nuclear family is a good system, but rather the source of a lot of suffering. But then I think: a residential project is the solution, only then not to depend on it. It doesn’t work that way." That is the spine of this short novel. It focusses on a group of friends who initially support one another but come unglued as circumstances change.  There is a lot of rage in the  main character Kesi as she sets out to describe the world as it really is for her fourteen-year-old daughter, Bea. Stelle has a clear concept of the problems of modern living but does not pretend to have a solution. Very interesting reading enhanced by a European outlook.
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Stelling’s protagonist, Resi, starts by deconstructing her story, giving a list of names of her friendship group (who’s married to whom, their children, where they met) then says that she bets you won’t remember anyone except her and maybe one other, that the list is pointless. There’s a lot of humour here, and playfulness in the narrative voice, but it’s dark too. Class, privilege, and family (both chosen and biological) are argued over endlessly, and I felt real sympathy for Resi, who has been left behind with her four children. But where it falls apart for me is in all of the diversions Resi takes into the past, going over and over old fights to the point where you can’t tell if they are real events or imagined by Stelling’s novelist character. I found lots of these sections difficult to stay interested in. Plus I wasn’t really sure by the end exactly what Resi had written that had made everyone so mad. On a more positive note, from my completely unknowledgeable perspective, it seems like a great German to English translation, with informal language that works well and little bits of rhyme that still rhyme.
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We’re victims. And we’re architects of our own happiness! We can bring it off no matter what the backdrop: we’re the main characters of our own lives! (p.286)

We have been familiar with the term teenage angst as we refer to the period of existential crisis experienced by teenagers due to insecurities and stresses related to hormonal changes that happen in facing adolescence. To help adolescents with teenage angst would best be summed up with helping them to grow up properly so that they could manage their waves of anger and emotions effectively. But our main character in this book, Resi, is a writer in her forties who has to face the problems of being kicked out of her shared apartment by her friends, having to raise her four children properly in an age which she hardly understands, and mostly with an emotionally unavailable husband.

The whole storyline in this book could be understood as an intergenerational message that Resi wants to share to her fourteen-year-old daughter, Bea, about how things possibly went wrong with her mom, Marianne, for her, and what Bea should take note to avoid (at least) being embarrassed by her poor economic and societal upbringing. At times during my reading, I wish I could have a mom like Resi who could be very open about her own problems confronting adulthood, the strained relationships with her friends, as well as their family’s ‘poor’ economic background. However, I might as well question my stance on morality if I suddenly get confronted with such facts just like the poor Bea at the age of 14.

Anke Stelling doesn’t spare us with lower tense throughout this book. What at first seemed to me like advice and pearls of wisdom from mother to daughter slowly turns up as endless rantings about problems with the society. In the age of Instagram, it’s getting harder to conceal a family’s bad economic situation as Bea could check up what her classmates and friends show on social media about their so-called lives and holidays. While in turn, Resi, her mother grew up in a transitional Germany after the so-called Wirtschaftwunder — the economic miracle.

We weren’t like our mothers. We had our wild times, after all, fulfilled our dreams, got to know more than one penis, watched our waistlines only secretly, if at all, and our husbands knew how to use the washing machine. (p. 255)

The economic condition is a frequent topic throughout this novel, and it will soon become apparent through Resi storytelling to Bea that their economic condition has not changed that much ever since Resi’s parents’ generation while there are dynamic changes in terms of how we interact with each other and how wealth is perceived in our modern society.

I don’t know how it feels like to other readers, but this is not a comfortable reading experience for me. There are many flashbacks here and there, frequent jumps of timeline which leave the context too vague at times. While I'll have to admit that the prose is beautiful (and mad at the same time at the so-called cursed society). I could sympathise with Resi’s anger towards society, however, I cannot agree fully with the way she victimises herself as if she’s a controlled agent without any free will. Resi’s preaching about modern society indeed has some dark tones, while could also sound comic at times. Surely, Lucy Jones has done well translating this work from German to English without losing the context.
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