There is Julia, in her late thirties, a ceramist, shy. She and her husband, Chris, a biologist, recently moved to the village on the Kiel Canal. From the old building in the big city, they moved into a self-renovated brick house. Ivy welcomes you through the window.
Then there’s Astrid, in her early 60s, a licensed physician. Until recently, her husband Andreas was a history teacher in the area, with Julia owning a studio shop with an online store and Astrid taking up her practice. Now a retiree is sitting in the living room in his lunchtime pajamas, sniffing news from the US and Europe in the recent past and worrying about the political state of the world like Chris about the environment.
I narrated the lives of two women in parallel
Writer Kristen Belkau from Hamburg compares marriages at different stages of her life, narrates in parallel, and then links them together. The creeping fear of social decline in such an ordinary family, which Bilkao described in 2015 in her award-winning debut “The Happy Ones,” aligns with the waning basic trust in the world and the people that “Next Door” speaks of.
In front of the decaying landscape of a small, uncharted town with a dying center and an unrelated village of old people in the homes of the settlers in the families of the new housing estate after the emigration of sons, where “Bauhaus and Frisian style alternately”.
In her clear, no-frills language, scantly adorned with impressions of nature, the author describes growing mistrust in the provinces. But not in the form of a horror story where the mysterious disappearance of a family with three children from the house next door, which “House Next Door” revolves around, is expected to be resolved as a crime.
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Instead, Belkao skillfully pushes the yellow clinker building with the overflow mailbox, which is located right next to Julia’s house, at the center of her ideas. Then she also got into Astrid, because her aunt Elsa, who feels responsible for her, lives across the street. The author creates small shifts in everyday life, evokes feelings of insecurity. She reported secrecy and omission between married couples. He describes women whose stream of thoughts is so filled with desires and anxieties that it threatens to take over everything.
Old woman lying dead in the tub
Julia misses a child so much that she invests endless time and money in hormone therapy and IVF. Astrid, whose three sons have long since left their homes and live with their families halfway around the world, wonders when the time is right to retire.
Only a few days had passed the year, and the landscape was bare and frozen, when the first flaw appeared in Astrid’s daily monotony. She is called for surgery before dawn. Old woman lying dead in the bathtub. The husband does not want to notice anything. Bilkau responds to everyday horror with a sweet metaphor: “The water in the bathtub is as steady as glass.”
[Kristine Bilkau: Nebenan. Roman. Luchterhand Literaturverlag, München 2022. 288 Seiten, 24 €.]
Hematomas and swellings on the woman’s body make Astrid suspect her natural death. To the horror of her husband, she called the police and insisted on an autopsy. The home of the universe, which Julia feels in her home Ivy as a shelter against the uncontrollable outside world, can also be the scene of neglect or even cruelty.
Like the neighborhood where Astrid’s girlfriend’s son Marley, as a teenager, set fire to hedgehogs and hung rabbits in the playground. A frightening and inexplicable act of the mother, which plunges her into deep psychological distress.
Confusing as the threatening letters Astrid suddenly sends to someone in practice who Marley would rather tell her husband. The messages attack the caretaker’s nerves. “The feeling of impending doom haunts her. She feels like she’s walking on thin ice. She has to be careful. Something’s going to happen, he’s up in the air. One wrong move and then.”
How should society develop if places are missing?
But “and then” does not come. Of course, normal life continues frighteningly. The neighboring family is still missing, but the terrifying emptiness in the women’s heads diminishes.
Also because Julia realizes she is responsible for her isolation as she constantly compares her supposedly imperfect life with the perfect families on Instagram. Because she craves connection and communication, but retreats in shock as soon as the phone or the store bell rings. Actually big city syndrome. Nowadays socially isolated individuals create their own hell. That’s what Next Door says calmly and artistically.
Where else should society arise if it has no places? The ruined shop on the Market Square was blown up, and the cinema, cafe and dance school were closed for a long time. In this limbo in northern Germany, Christine Belkau constantly keeps the story of her disappearance and discovery in limbo. Only when it comes to the topic of potential motherhood, she puts it very thickly. But Julia is among all the people who understand, with a happy, cautious ending, that life cannot work without confidence. Gonda Bartels